Thursday, April 25, 2024

The power of the collared cow 

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A new use for virtual fencing of cattle may have emerged – a way to get them thinning out the fuel load in high country before fire season rages.
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Virtual fencing on dairy farms is becoming increasingly popular – and its expansion into the hill country has shown that it may do more than just keep cattle in check.

There are now several virtual systems on the market that effectively remove the need for physical fences. 

Cows wearing electronic collars have their movement controlled via an app using audio and vibrations to confine them to certain parts of the farm.

Some farmers are opposed to the systems on animal welfare grounds but others say the technology is a game changer, cutting the cost of fencing while also enabling farmers to better manage their stock and pasture.

And it is also providing some unexpected benefits for hill country farmers. It allows stock to graze higher on less-productive, overgrown pasture – and this, according to some experts, will not only improve the grass but reduce the threat of wildfires.  

Dr Derrick Moot, a professor of Plant Science at Lincoln University and leader of its Dryland Pastures Research team, is one who believes virtual fencing in the hill country could prevent fires, such as those that have raged on the Port Hills, in Christchurch, twice in the past seven years.

Moot knows his stuff. He was involved in investigating the biological causes of the 2017 Port Hills fire and at the time believed it would happen again unless our approach changed.

In December last year he predicted 2024 would be a burn year. A wet spring had seen grasses grow tall and flower and, without suitable grazing, it had become tinder dry and a perfect fuel for wildfires.

But he also has solutions, and believes virtual fencing will enable cattle to roam higher in the hill country and eat away at the rough, flammable overgrown pasture, which sheep ignore.

“Cows are the lawnmowers on commercial hill country farms. They clean up the excess vegetation in spring and summer and reduce the risk of a burn,” says Moot. 

While there is no guarantee there won’t be more fires, Moot says such technology can reduce their probability and their impact.

Advances in virtual fencing mean land holders could opt in or out of having their land grazed communally. Grazing can be planned with pinpoint accuracy and carried out close to buildings or forestry, reducing fuel in those areas and preventing the spread of fire. 

Northland farmer James Parsons has first-hand experience of virtual fencing, trialling Halter collars for three months on his 600 hectare hill country property.

While it’s early days, he is already seeing the benefits. His farming operations currently use only 59% of their available pasture, but once some improvements are made to infrastructure they could go to 80%, generating much more profit for the business.

At this time of year, fire risk is constantly on farmers and firefighters’ minds as temperatures rise and winds set in.

It would be nice to think a proactive approach was available to help prevent more fires such as those on the Port Hills. All options should be on the table when it comes to fire prevention. Roaming cattle might just be part of the solution.

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