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Rotational grazing could go virtual

A University of Alberta researcher attempts to determine if virtual fences can work when moving cattle within a pasture.
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A professor from the University of Alberta says virtual fences should not replace physical perimeter fencing but may be useful in rotational grazing and keeping cattle out of certain parts of a pasture.

WESTERN PRODUCER — Beef producers are only limited by their imaginations when it comes to the potential benefits of technology that uses virtual rather than physical fences to control cattle, says a scientist.

It is based on collars that give electric shocks to livestock if they try to stray outside digital boundaries established by producers via a mobile app, said Carolyn Fitzsimmons, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta.

The devices should not be used to replace physical perimeter fencing, which will likely continue to be necessary to maintain the security of cattle and ensure public safety, said masters student Alex Harland.

However, she is studying whether virtual fences could be used to move cattle from place to place within fields for rotational grazing, minimizing or even eliminating the need for physical labour by producers. Fitzsimmons said other potential uses range from rounding up cattle for weaning to keeping them out of riparian areas.

“And then ultimately, I think once this technology gets out and it starts to be used by the general population, producers will start to think of many different things and many different ways that they can use virtual fencing technology to help them in their operations, so really it’s just limited by the producer’s imagination.”

Both Fitzsimmons and Harland spoke as part of a recent panel discussion on virtual cattle fencing at the AgSmart expo at Olds College in Alberta. Scientists at the university and college have been separately studying technology developed by Nofence.

The Norwegian company, which bills itself as the creator of the world’s first virtual fence system for grazing animals, planned to hold market pilots this year in North America. Its collars connect via cellular or mobile networks to the app so that producers can define the virtual fence, said Fitzsimmons.

The collars contain a GPS receiver to determine the animals’ position relative to the virtual fence, allowing producers to track where the animals are via the app, she said.

“So, you could wake up in the morning and be like, ‘hey, I haven’t seen the cattle in the west 40 for the last three days’… You can see if your cattle are still where they should be, and their grazing patterns and their behavior throughout the day as well.”

Each collar consists of a strap around the neck, along with two chains from which hangs a rechargeable battery powered by two solar panels. If cattle get too close to the virtual fence, the collars emit an audible warning cue before releasing an electric shock, said Fitzsimmons, who is also a research scientist at Agriculture Canada.

“If the animal continues to leave that virtual fence boundary, it’ll receive another audio cue, then a shock, and then a third audio cue and then a shock. If it continues to go outside of the boundary, then ultimately the shocks and audio cues stop and that animal is designated as escaped, so the animal won’t keep receiving shocks after it goes out of the boundary.”

Harland said in an interview cattle receive shocks that are about one sixth the strength of an electric fence.

“In doing my observations, I’ve noticed that they move very quickly away from an audio warning, but when there’s an electrical shock, you see that their body has a reflex and they walk away very quickly, so I wouldn’t say there’s any animals that are ignoring the shock. And that’s shown through the data where there’s no real repeat offenders who are always escaping us.”

It is important to first train cattle so they learn to associate the audible cue with the need to avoid being shocked, she told the panel. They seem to be easily trainable, said Laio Sobrinho, who is a research associate at the Technology Access Centre for Livestock Production at Olds College.

Although cattle respected virtual fences 99 percent of the time, they tended to be confused by boundaries that contain sharp corners and narrow alleyways, said Fitzsimmons. Escapes typically involved only one or two animals that returned by their own volition within five or 10 minutes, said Harland.

However, there was one major escape during a storm that included hail and loud thunder, she said. “And as a group, all of the cattle took off, escaped out of the virtual fence and just took shelter under the trees in the other half of the pasture, and then the next morning, they returned under their own power and everything started off as normal.”

As a result, virtual fences can’t completely replace physical fences, she said. Although the technology “has been so good so far, we really think that perimeter physical fencing is necessary for ultimate security for your cattle, public safety, and making sure your cattle truly don’t just take off on you.”

The research project at Olds College saw a high number of audio cues and shocks during a very cloudy day when GPS accuracy dropped, said Sobrinho.

The diminished accuracy resulted in cattle being randomly shocked, causing them to become scared, he added. However, Harland praised the tracking capabilities of the technology.

“We’re getting really reliable 15-minute GPS location reports for every animal, and the accuracy is really hopping.”

She also lauded the battery life of the collars, stating they were all at 84 percent or higher despite being in operation for six or seven weeks.

Each collar currently costs hundreds of dollars, said Fitzsimmons during an interview.

“The company said $500, but ours priced out to about $360 … and it does get a little cheaper if you order more, so that might be the difference.”

Adding to the cost is the price of subscriptions to access cellular networks, she said.

“For us for the last quarter, it was $180 and we had 51 collars, so it also gets cheaper per collar as you get more collars.”

Sobrinho said due to supply chain issues, his research project was only able to receive four collars from Nofence. As a result, he looked at whether a herd of uncollared cattle could be controlled using only a few animals with collars.

Although the results weren’t conclusive, his research hinted that “maybe the collars could be used on a smaller number of animals within the herd, which would obviously increase the return on investment for producers,” he said. “Going forward, if we’re able to get all the collars that we definitely want, this is one of the things that we want to test as well.”

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