Home

‘We have proof of concept’: Virtual fencing trial shows promise at Pilbara cattle station

Headshot of Adam Poulsen
Adam PoulsenCountryman
Hamersley Station Droughtmaster cattle used in the virtual fencing trial.
Camera IconHamersley Station Droughtmaster cattle used in the virtual fencing trial. Credit: BeefLinks/BeefLinks

A virtual fencing trial under way in the Pilbara is yielding promising results, with researchers confident the technology could be a game changer for WA’s northern cattle industry.

The trial, which will soon enter its third and final phase, is part of the BeefLinks project — a four-year research and development partnership between Meat and Livestock Australia and the University of WA.

It is being conducted on a herd of mostly Droughtmaster cattle at the Rio Tinto-owned Hamersley Station, a 267,000ha pastoral lease 70km north-east of Tom Price.

Project leader, UWA Institute of Agriculture Associate Director Professor Philip Vercoe, said the goal was to determine whether virtual fencing could be effective on vast expanses of land where traditional fencing was too expensive.

Get in front of tomorrow's news for FREE

Journalism for the curious Australian across politics, business, culture and opinion.

READ NOW

“It’s a proof of concept trial in many ways. Where virtual fencing has been targeted in the past has been more the intensive systems, where there’s greater observations and management (of livestock),” he said.

“This was about, can we get animals of the type that we have in northern WA and across the top end — those sorts of breeds that aren’t seen on a daily basis — and help manage them better in the rangelands?”

UWA Institute of Agriculture Associate Director Professor Philip Vercoe.
Camera IconUWA Institute of Agriculture Associate Director Professor Philip Vercoe. Credit: Bob Garnant/Countryman

As well as maximising profits, Prof. Vercoe said better grazing management practices could lead to the regeneration of degraded rangelands.

While he acknowledged the efforts of pastoralists in that regard, he said they could benefit from more tools.

“They can’t possibly fence things as much as the more intensive industries do to try and manage that grazing process,” Prof. Vercoe said.

“We’re trying to figure out if there are ways and means that we can help them manage those animals grazing in those big areas in a more intensive way, without having to look at extensive fencing, which really isn’t going to be an option because of the cost.”

Virtual fencing enables livestock fitted with a GPS collar to be contained in paddocks without the need for traditional “visible” barriers.

The collar emits an audible beep to warn animals of the presence of the invisible fence, which they learn to respond to.

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

These collars, produced by US virtual fencing company Vence, are being trialled on cattle at Hamersley Station in the Pilbara.
Camera IconThese collars, produced by US virtual fencing company Vence, are being trialled on cattle at Hamersley Station in the Pilbara. Credit: Facebook/Vence

Prof. Vercoe said the results had been encouraging.

“We can certainly show that the animals can be trained to the audio signal,” he said.

“The whole idea is to train them to the audio so they don’t breach the electrical stimulus. We showed that over the first few days, the vast majority of animals do train to the audio signal, and the electrical stimuli needed becomes much less after about 48 hours.”

The first phase, which started in early 2021, saw 20 cattle fitted with collars and confined in a small area for a month, during which they were monitored for signs of pain or stress.

“That was just to see if we had any issues with the collars, if they were irritating the animals, and whether we could train these types of animals to the collar,” Prof. Vercoe said.

“Then we moved up to 100 animals in a 300ha area of land (with a virtual fence activated). There was, again, a (visible) fenced area… but we could really see that the virtual fence was taking effect.”

The third and final phase, due to begin in late March, will involve 300-500 animals in an area of at least 1500ha with “virtually non-existent” traditional fencing.

“The third phase will give us the most confidence about the sorts of things that we might be able to do with virtual fencing as a tool up in the north,” Prof. Vercoe said.

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

Sign up for our emails