Friday, July 1, 2022

Better than Farmville?

When DairyNZ masters student Jamie Haultain put the words “virtual fencing” up on the last slide for his talk on GPS to the DairyNZ Farmers’ Forum in Invercargill on May 15, someone had to ask what it meant.

He explained, to some laughter, that farmers in North America were looking at whether they could shift their cows using only GPS.

Instead of fences, cows would receive an electric shock from a collar or head gear if they were grazing where they shouldn’t.

He also said farmers should search the web if they didn’t believe him.

And he’s right. North Americans are contemplating shifting cattle from the comfort of an office.

There’s even been a patent granted for “an apparatus to be worn on the head or head and neck of an animal” which has an “aversive stimuli generator”.

The “aversive stimuli generator” also known as a “bovine interface” is powered by a battery and makes an increasingly annoying sound as the cow approaches the virtual fence. If the cow steps through the virtual fence it receives an electric shock.

The theory is based on pet containment systems. Collars which give dogs an electric shock if they roam from a certain area have been available since the early 1970s.

The benefits of shifting cattle by remote control were, according to several websites, getting rid of the “mile upon mile of barbed wire stretched across the North American landscape” as well as protecting sensitive areas such as wildlife habitats and waterways.

It would also stop farm fencing affecting wildlife migration routes. Cattle could be directed to where feed is following rain and ranchers could share grazing land without worrying about mixing up herds.

Compared with building fences or using cowhands to shift stock, it would be cost-effective when the devices became widely available on the market.

However, cows which didn’t respond to the noise and the shock would have to be culled.

But it’s not just the North Americans who are considering virtual fencing. The Scottish government has funded research which showed virtual fencing does work in principle but it would never be 100% stock-proof due to technology failure, animals losing the device and limited battery life.

As well, virtual fencing does not stop other animals (such as wildlife or the neighbour’s stock) coming onto farms and there is no visible barrier to stop people also entering.

On the plus side, the Scottish researchers found it did mean a reduction of labour required on farm, reduced fencing costs and, in times of flooding, stock could be moved to dry land without risking anyone’s life.

US news sites described virtual fencing as “possibly the best thing to happen to the industry in a century” as the current way of managing livestock with fences and gates was “medieval”.

Another said shifting cattle by GPS would be more fun than playing the online game Farmville.

For more information:

United States Department of Agriculture

CSIRO Australia

The Atlantic

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