June 25, 2007 Building and maintaining fences for controlling livestock places a huge financial burden on agricultural producers worldwide, but is there really any need for all those posts and wires? This is the question posed by the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization (CSIRO) which has come up with a virtual fencing solution applicable to cattle and sheep farming. Using a GPS system to define fence boundaries and a specially designed collar that alerts the animal to the fact that it has reached the “fence”, a prototype of the system has now been successfully demonstrated on a herd of cattle.
Designed to enable more efficient use of pasture as well as protect the environment and reduce labour, the completely wireless system works by emitting a sound when the animal wearing the collar approaches the boundary. This enables animals to learn where the fence line is by associating the sound signal with their behaviour of approaching boundary. If an animal decides to go past the line it receives a small electric shock in a similar fashion to a conventional electric fence.
During experimentation, cattle fitted with the system for the first time took about an hour to learn where the invisible boundary was and only had to hear the warning sound seven times on average during this process. Similar results are expected when the system is applied to sheep. Experiments have shown that animals can learn about a virtual fence for the first time in less than an hour. All research into the virtual fence has been conducted in line with animal welfare requirements with an independent animal welfare expert used to verify that the animals are not unduly stressed.
The fence boundaries are set using global positioning satellite (GPS) that once set, is fully automated and self-sufficient and also enables farmers to continuously monitor the location of their cattle. So moving a fence to accommodate changes in pasture or protect a sensitive environmental area becomes a simple matter of re-drawing lines on a computer instead of a huge and expensive physical task.
CSIRO’s Dr Andrew Fisher said the system works in a similar way to a conventional electric fence for livestock and is a major improvement on existing virtual fencing approaches.
“The boundaries are drawn entirely by GPS and exist only as a line on a computer,” Dr Fisher said “There are no wires or fixed transmitters used at all. Importantly, what we’re developing, achieves the same result as a conventional fence but without the need for posts and wire.”
“Importantly, what we’re developing, achieves the same result as a conventional fence but without the need for posts and wire.”
Research team member, CSIRO Livestock Industries’ Dr Caroline Lee, said the collars contain advanced software to identify when a cow is near a fence line and which signal should be emitted.
“Signal timing and duration are based on the behaviour of the cow, and the animals can learn about a virtual fence for the first time in less than an hour and avoid the fence boundary,” Dr Lee said. “The cattle learn, by associating the sound signal with their behaviour of approaching the virtual fence boundary which is programmed into the collars.”
According to CSIRO ICT Centre researcher, Dr Tim Wark there is still some work to be done in areas such as smart-power management before the system is commercially viable. “We can envisage a farm of the future where farmers can fence their property from the comfort of their homesteads,” Dr Wark said.