GPS tracking set to revolutionise livestock management

Published 11 March 2010

collarA recent trial of global positioning system (GPS) tracking technology on Twynam Agriculture’s “Buttabone” property in Western NSW has shown that steers graze only a fraction of the paddock available to them.

“Most graziers realise that their cattle don’t use the paddocks evenly,” said Dr Mark Trotter from the University of New England’s Precision Agriculture Research Group, who is leading the research project. “However, using GPS technology we can now measure exactly how much time an animal spends in any given area.”

GPS collars developed at UNE, attached to steers grazing in herds in the “Buttabone” paddock, enabled the position of each animal to be logged every five minutes over a period of 12 days. After retrieving the collars, the position data were downloaded and used to create – for the first time – a stocking rate map. The map shows where the steers had actually spent time in the paddock.

While the average stocking rate in the paddock was 13 DSE (“dry sheep equivalent”) per hectare, actual paddock usage ranged from 0 DSE per hectare (no use whatsoever) to a surprising  250 DSE per hectare – particularly around camp areas.

“It’s not surprising to see such large variation in the use of this paddock,” Dr Trotter said. “The conditions at the time we undertook the trial were probably as good as they’ve been in years, with a large amount of pasture available. The steers didn’t have to travel that far to feed, and consequently they didn’t end up using the whole paddock. If conditions had been dryer and less feed available, we would probably have seen them using a lot more of the paddock. We need to deploy the collars over several seasons to get a real picture of what’s going on throughout the grazing lifecycle of a paddock.”

Information on the variation between individual animals also emerged from the trial. One of the tracked steers moved an average of 4.7 kilometres per day, while another walked 5.9 kilometres per day. “That 1 kilometre difference could have profound impact on weight gain,” said Professor David Lamb, leader of the Precision Agriculture Research Group at UNE. “There is no reason why data like this couldn’t be used as part of a genetic selection process – after all, we need herds comprising the most efficient meat producers.  Imagine being able to identify animal traits on the basis of this sort of data.”

As well as working with Twyanm Agriculture, scientists at the Precision Agriculture Research Group are also working with other large farmers, including Sundown Pastoral, Clyde Agriculture and Milne Agrigroup, to see how GPS tracking information can be used to better manage their high-intensity and rangeland grazing operations.

“Although our low-cost GPS collars have to be collected and the data downloaded, allowing us to look at the movements of cattle after the event, we are now investigating the use of real-time tracking devices, ” Dr Trotter said. “However, the unit costs need to come down a long way before widespread deployment in the industry can be contemplated.

“The potential benefits of real-time tracking systems are profound – from locating stock that have escaped from paddocks, to warning systems for wild-dog attack, to monitoring the activity of bulls and rams during the breeding season. All this can be done remotely, with the information fed back to the grazier’s home computer or mobile phone.

“This technology is never going to replace the need to actually get out in the paddock and check your stock, but it’s certainly going to make it a more efficient process.”

The Vice-Chancellor of UNE, Professor Jim Barber, said that the development – and successful field trial – of the GPS tracking collars was an example of UNE’s leading role in precision agriculture. “Such applications of new technology represent the future of agriculture,” Professor Barber said. “UNE, with its strong focus on both agriculture and innovation, is well placed to remain at the forefront of developments in precision agriculture.”

THE PHOTOGRAPH of one of the GPS collars displayed here expands to show (from left) Dr Mark Trotter, Professor Jim Barber, Professor David Lamb, and Craig Birchall (UNE Lecturer in Agronomy and Soil Science) in the field.