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Published: 16 Mar 2018

Virtual herding technology has the potential to revolutionize the way dairy farms of the future operate, but the application of the technology to intensively manage grazing cattle is still largely unknown. Researchers at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) are part of a national program to find out how virtual herding technology could be used to optimize livestock and pasture management for intensive dairy farms.

TIA Research Fellow, Dr Megan Verdon, is conducting trials at TIA’s Dairy Research Facility at Elliott in North-West Tasmania. During 2018, the trials will have a focus on animal behaviour as Dr Verdon, an animal behaviour specialist, investigates how to effectively introduce the technology to animals on a commercial farm to ensure rapid association of the cues with long-term retention.

“The technology replaces a physical fence line with what we call a virtual fence line which a farmer can set and move from a computer or tablet based on GPS locations. The cow wears a collar which delivers an audio signal when she approaches the virtual fence line. If she continues to walk towards the fence line she receives an electrical stimulus but if she stops walking or turns back around she won’t receive any further sensory cues. Through this process of audio and electrical stimulus, the animals learn that the audio means they’re approaching a fence line,” Dr Verdon said.

"Once we know how animals respond and interact with the technology we can then explore how it can sustainably be used to increase dairy farm productivity through more tightly controlled stock movement.”

Dr Verdon said virtual herding technology presented endless opportunities for intensive dairy farming, with potential benefits for productivity, profitability and sustainability.

“The benefits of using virtual herding technology could be quite substantial for farmers. It means farmers could implement more intensive or complex grazing regimes without the increased cost of labour or building the fences, you could fence-off riparian zones or environmentally sensitive areas, and more easily move animals away from waterlogged areas,” Dr Verdon said.

“There’s also opportunity for the technology to support the provision of pasture at a time when animals want to feed which is often at sunset or sunrise. Through this interaction between the timing of pasture provision and how much pasture is provided, we could create an environment that results in increased productivity and better pasture utilisation.”

Dr Verdon was awarded a Research Integrity and Ethics Award, by the University of Tasmania, for her work on the virtual herding project. The award recognises Dr Verdon for meeting the needs of diverse stakeholders while ensuring any potential implications of the technology on the welfare of dairy cattle is understood.

The project is funded through the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources as part of its Rural R&D for Profit program.  It is a partnership between CSIRO, the University of Sydney, University of New England, the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, the University of Melbourne and Agersens Pty Ltd, with further funding support from the dairy, beef, wool and pork industries and their respective RDCs; Dairy Australia, Meat and Livestock Australia, Australian Wool Innovation and Australian Pork Limited.

This article appeared in Tasmanian Country on 16 March, 2018.