Spotlight on new technology for monitoring livestock

Published 21 July 2010

trotterA Trans-Tasman symposium at the University of New England last Thursday reviewed the current applications and future potential of new communications and remote sensing technology in helping graziers manage their livestock.

Dr Mark Trotter (pictured here), the organiser of the symposium – the 1st Australian and New Zealand Spatially Enabled Livestock Management Symposium – used a hypothetical scenario to give an idea of that potential. “A grazier is alerted by SMS on his mobile phone,” Dr Trotter began. “One of his cows is roaming on a neighbouring property. A second SMS message informs him that another of his cows is down and having difficulty calving – time to call the vet. At breakfast the next day he uses his laptop computer to check on the grazing pressure in his top paddock. This herd doesn’t seem to be using much of the good feed in the north-west corner, so his first job of the day is to drop out some salt licks to attract them to the under-grazed area.”

“Does it all sound futuristic?” he asked. “This technology exists.”

Speakers at the symposium, sponsored by the CRC for Spatial Information and Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), outlined the state of the art in the application of a range of remote sensing technologies (GPS, sensor networks, virtual fencing and other autonomous monitoring systems) in livestock management. They reported on research in progress, identified opportunities for future research, and opened communication between researchers, technology developers, funding bodies and producers.

Dr Trotter, from UNE’s Precision Agriculture Research Group and the CRC for Spatial Information, said that the participants – about 50 people from around Australia and from New Zealand – had discussed current and future work involving technologies for spatial tracking of livestock and dynamic monitoring of the grazing environment. “A coordinated approach to research and development will help ensure we get practical outcomes for our livestock industries,” he said. “The interest in GPS-based monitoring of livestock and their environment has exploded in the past few years. We’re now seeing commercial monitoring technology being developed for producers. The developers need to know what the industry really needs, and the industry needs to be ready for it.”

One such development is a low-cost, radio-operated monitoring system for cattle. The small device, clipped on to a cow’s ear, can keep track of the animal’s location for three years. “It’s a simple, low-cost communications device,” said Chris Andrews from Taggle Systems Pty Ltd. Reporting to the symposium on the company’s development of the device, Mr Andrews said it had reached the commercialisation phase. The company hoped that, after the completion of current trials, the device would be commercially available early next year, he said.

Dr David Swain, a Senior Research Fellow from Central Queensland University (CQU) and a leading figure in the field of precision livestock, said that the next development phase in remote tracking would see an increasing emphasis on radio technologies.

Toby Patterson from CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research presented the Keynote Address, titled “The state of the art in movement and behavioural modelling in ecology”. Other symposium speakers included UNE’s Professor David Lamb (“Active optical sensors for grazing systems research”), Rod Dyer, Manager of MLA’s Northern Beef program (“The business case for investment in development of precision livestock management technologies and applications”), and Dr Rebecca Handcock from CSIRO Livestock Industries (“Linking GPS and satellite remote sensing to monitor animal behaviour and environmental interactions”).

The paper presented by Dr Handcock reported on a study combining the use of GPS collars and satellite images in a wireless sensor network to monitor behaviour (for example, maternal behaviour) in cattle as an aid to management.

More information, and copies of the symposium proceedings and podcasts of the presentations, are available from the Web site of UNE’s Precision Agriculture Research Group: www.une.edu.au/parg.

THE PHOTOGRAPH of Dr Mark Trotter displayed here expands to include Dr David Swain (centre) and Rod Dyer.