CSIRO trials new virtual fencing system on Australian sheep and cattle

Staff reporterCountryman
A flock of sheep at University of WA Farm Ridgefield in West Pingelly.
Camera IconA flock of sheep at University of WA Farm Ridgefield in West Pingelly. Credit: Supplied/UWA

A virtual fencing system that enables GPS-fitted sheep to be contained in paddocks without the need for traditional “visible” barriers is being trialed at locations across Australia.

The CSIRO is field testing the innovative, animal-friendly system with support from Australian Wool Innovation Limited and the Grains and Research Development Corporation.

A virtual fence is an invisible line in the landscape that can be created on a map on a computer or tablet, and moved or erased at the farmer’s touch.

Animals wearing a GPS-enabled device are warned of the presence of the invisible fence by an audible beep emitted from the device, which they learn to respond to.

When the beep is ignored, the device delivers a short, mild electric pulse.

According to AWI, there has been “significant” industry interest in the development of virtual fencing systems due to a range of potential benefits.

They include increased productivity and profitability through improved feed utilisation, and better matching of animal demands to feed supply and quality; improved environmental and sustainability outcomes, including reduced overgrazing and better weed control and nutrient management; and improved labour efficiencies and reduced capital investment in traditional fencing.

A flock of Merino wethers.
Camera IconA flock of Merino wethers. Credit: Zach Relph/Countryman

“The aim of the AWI investment is to be able to apply virtual fencing to sheep using a system similar to the now commercialised eShepherd neckband that has been developed for cattle by CSIRO and Gallagher,” AWI said.

“However, it has been identified that a neckband on its own is not a practical option for sheep due to the growth and insulating properties of wool.

“Therefore, investigations into the practicality of a virtual fencing ear tag are now being conducted by CSIRO.”

An initial study found learning responses to stimulus applied through ear devices were similar to application via a neckband, AWI said.

The ear device was effective at keeping sheep out of a prescribed area in a paddock, and animals were observed to return quickly to grazing after encountering the virtual fence.

“Development by CSIRO is now under way to fully automate the process in GPS-enabled devices for sheep, to allow larger scale sheep trials to be carried out on mixed farms with larger sheep numbers, and longer trial periods for more intensive grazing pressure,” AWI said.

“The challenge will be to develop an ear tag system, incorporating both electrical stimuli and audio cue, that is practical and viable in a commercial environment.”

The CSIRO is also trialing virtual fencing systems on cattle.

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails