Virtual fencing for improved drought resilience on South Australian farms
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Virtual fencing for improved drought resilience on South Australian farms
Lead organisation: SARDI
Hub members and partners involved: University of Adelaide, SA Arid Lands Landscape Board, Limestone Coast Landscape Board, Mackillop Farm Management Group, AIREP
Project Category: Hub Projects | Innovation Activities
Project summary: 

Virtual fencing has the potential to act as a tool to improve drought and climate resilience in livestock systems. Currently, virtual fencing is not commercially available in SA and further research needs to be completed to demonstrate the potential applications of the technology. Field trials were undertaken to assess virtual fencing to facilitate practice change in sheep and cattle enterprises to improve sustainability, resource utilisation and profitability.

Virtual fencing was demonstrated to facilitate rest-based grazing and improved landscape management on a cattle station in the Far North of SA. Significant improvements in mustering efficiency were also achieved using virtual fencing in this system. In the Southeast of SA, virtual fencing was implemented to contain sheep to a particular grazing area using a commercially relevant device. This project has demonstrated some of the key benefits of virtual fencing to livestock producers and communicated these through learning events. These findings have been utilised to develop extension materials to support producers in adopting this technology when it becomes available. Virtual fencing will give livestock producers increased control over the way their land and animals are managed. This will facilitate increased resilience and preparedness for adversity associated with drought and climate change.

Project description: 

The virtual fencing project was designed to assess virtual fencing technology as a tool for increasing the drought and climate resilience of South Australian sheep and cattle enterprises. Virtual fencing allows remote management of livestock location using GPS and neckbands that signal boundaries to the animals. This technology reduces inputs associated with traditional grazing systems as well as enabling management of challenging landscapes. Virtual fencing has a range of potential applications across the sheep and cattle industries including containment of livestock, targeted and rotational grazing and exclusion from environmentally sensitive areas.

Virtual fencing has the potential to provide benefit to producers located throughout South Australia. However, there is particular benefit to extensive and pastoral enterprises. This is due to the physical size of these properties making establishment of physical fences and implementation of innovative grazing practices challenging. These enterprises are usually located in more marginal areas of the state, making them more susceptible to the impacts of climate change and drought. Grazing optimisation and management of sensitive landscapes is essential for drought and climate change preparedness. Therefore, virtual fencing could act as a valuable tool for produces located within these areas.

Two field trials were completed to assess the drought preparedness capabilities of virtual fencing for sheep and cattle enterprises. Virtual fencing is well established in cattle with its capacity to contain cattle previously demonstrated (Lee et al, 2009; Campbell et al, 2017; Campbell et al, 2018). However, virtual fencing in sheep is less developed with only one previous study in Australia testing an automated system with a number of constraints such as sample size and duration (Campbell et al, 2023). The field trials undertaken as part of this project focused on building upon the current knowledge base and assessing the technology under conditions that more closely align with potential commercial implementation, with particular interest in managing livestock for increased drought resilience.

The findings of the two virtual fencing trials undertaken as part of this project indicate that virtual fencing is suitable to manage livestock and landscapes to increase climate and drought resilience on farm. At Wintinna Station in the state’s far north, cattle were managed using virtual fencing to facilitate rest-based grazing and improve landscape management. Significant savings in labour and mustering expenses were also observed. At the Struan Research Centre, virtual fencing contained clipped and woolly sheep within trial paddocks and confirmed that an automated virtual fencing system can be applied to sheep. The results of these two trials contribute significant findings to the field of virtual fencing research and highlight the benefit of virtual fencing as livestock management tool for South Australian producers.

Virtual fencing is currently prohibited in South Australia under the state’s animal welfare legislation, so this tool cannot yet be adopted by South Australian producers. However, the South Australian government have committed to reviewing this legislation with a change to the virtual fencing ban included in this review. The results of this study contribute to informing the nature of this legislative change by highlighting some of the big picture benefits of virtual fencing. Additionally, extension activities undertaken as part of this project have highlighted the demand for virtual fencing within the livestock industry. This project will directly contribute to the commercialisation of virtual fencing in South Australia and therefore have a meaningful impact on the ability of producers to prepare for drought and climate change within their businesses.

Key achievements and results: 

The field trials confirmed that virtual fencing can be used as a tool to facilitate drought resilience in South Australian sheep and cattle enterprises. At Wintinna Station, virtual fencing successfully facilitated rest-based grazing of cattle as well as improved management of marginal landscapes within the production system. Virtual fencing optimised the utilisation of the trial paddock and allowed regeneration of forage. Additionally, virtual fencing was used to assist with mustering cattle from the trial paddock. The use of virtual fencing resulted in a more efficient and successful muster by removing the need to the use of aircraft and allowing every animal to be mustered from the paddock.

At the Struan Research Centre, it was confirmed that sheep can be contained by an automated, commercially available virtual fencing system. This is a finding that has not previously been reported in the literature. Additionally, this study observed that sheep with wool can be contained to approximately the same level as sheep with clipped wool using a virtual fencing collar. This finding has the potential to change the way in which virtual fencing is commercialised for sheep in Australia.

The extension activities undertaken as part of this project highlighted a high level of demand and interest in virtual fencing from the livestock industry. This was particularly prevalent in the pastoral zone. Engagement in extension events allowed identification of potential early adopters of virtual fencing once the animal welfare legislation allows its use in South Australia.

Benefits to Industry:
The results of this project provide a number of benefits to the livestock industry. With the threat of climate change to livestock businesses approaching it is important to have a range of tools available to producers to increase resilience to this threat. This project has demonstrated that virtual fencing is a valuable tool for optimising land utilisation, facilitating sustainable grazing practices and reducing the labour inputs associated with these changes. These findings have been presented to livestock producers in the form of learning events and received well. Case studies have been prepared for each field trial to provide livestock producers with the information required to begin thinking about how this tool may benefit their businesses. This project will contribute to the overall resilience of South Australian livestock producers to adapt and respond to drought and climate change within their businesses.

Future Adoption Opportunities:
Given the current constraints to adopting virtual fencing in South Australia it is likely that adoption of this tool will be delayed. However, undertaking this work now prepares livestock producers for commercialisation of this product. By raising awareness of virtual fencing and its potential application now we are preparing the early adopters to implement this tool within their businesses. We have the opportunity to raise awareness and upskill producers in this space now so that when the technology is commercially available adoption will be streamlined and swift. Additionally, the findings of this project can be adopted in states where virtual fencing is currently permitted (Tasmania, Queensland and the Northern Territory). States such as Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia may be able to use the findings of this project to inform a change in their own animal welfare legislation to allow virtual fencing in livestock.

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