Imagine a farm without fences

Virtual fences promise to make livestock management easier

Virtual fencing isn’t new. In fact, some developers claim that they had the idea as many as 40 years ago and have had to wait for technology to catch up.

Today there are a few companies offering virtual fencing for livestock and most of them are centred around the same concept: a collar which uses GPS to control the movement of livestock.

Why do we need virtual fences?

Profitability Farmers use an immense amount of time and money building and maintaining fences to effectively manage livestock and grazing areas. Using virtual fencing means that farmers no longer have to put as much physical labour into mustering cattle, allowing them to use their resources elsewhere. With virtual fencing grazing areas can be controlled more precisely, meaning that less feed is wasted. Rotational grazing and strip grazing can be implemented quickly, easily and without much cost. The benefits of rotational and strip grazing are well known.

 

Productivity Naturally, less time spent on maintaining fences and controlling the movement of cattle will make farmers more productive. Most of the virtual fencing technology available is controlled using a cell phone app, meaning that a farmer doesn’t need to leave his own house to move his cattle.

Farmers can also use virtual fencing to integrate livestock farming and crop farming. Livestock can graze, and crops can be grown alongside each other, without worrying about crop damage.

 

Sustainability Virtual fencing also allows areas that were previously unsuited to grazing due to a lack a fencing to be used. For instance, the founder of No Fence, Oscar Hovde Berntsen, says that their collar can be used to allow goats to roam in mountainous and wooded areas where real fences cannot be built.

This is particularly important in the light of the growing global demand for animal protein. It is clear that we need more livestock, however we simply don’t have enough space. With virtual fencing farmers can use less resources per animal while also making use of resources that were previously unavailable.

Virtual fences are environmentally friendly. They can be used to keep livestock from polluting waterways and as the fence only works on animals fitted with collars, they are wildlife, human and bird friendly.

Who does it?

Agersens eShepherd

Based in Australia, Agersens’ eShepherd was developed using CSIRO research. It is a GPS enabled, solar powered smart collar system which trains livestock to avoid virtual fences using an audio cue.

How does it work?

The eShepherd system includes a collar for each animal, an internet accessible base station and a tablet. A farmer uses the eShepherd tablet to set boundaries. The GPS boundaries are loaded onto the collar. If an animal approaches the boundary, the collar emits a sound. If the animal ignores the sound, the collar delivers a mild electric shock. When the animal stops or turns away from the boundary, the collar does nothing, so the animal quickly learns to stop when they hear the sound.

What’s the appeal?

Agersens is designed with large scale operations in mind. Their system makes automated rotational grazing easy and inexpensive. It also reduces the cost of mustering cattle by aircraft and vehicles. They estimate that a collar costs between A$100 and A$250, depending on volume, and an annual subscription worth about A$1000 a year would be required to access the software and database.

Vence

Much like Agersens, American company Vence have created a wearable device which controls the movement of livestock. Vence CEO Frank Wooten affectionately refers to the device as a Fitbit for cows, as it offers a few extra features.

How does it work?

Vence’s collar uses a combination of GPS, sensors and low power, long range communications technology to train livestock to stay within the virtual fence. Farmers can set the fence boundaries using an app on their smart phone and can also use the app to track vital health and reproduction data on each cow.

What’s the appeal?

Vence aim to create a platform which allows for more efficient management of livestock within and across farms. They also believe that their system can be used to better control the health and diet of each cow, helping consumers to make better choices when it comes to the meat they eat and the milk they drink. Vence estimates the cost of their system at US$15 per cow per year for virtual fencing and they intend to charge farmers extra for algorithmic information such as health and reproduction data.

No Fence

Norwegian start-up No Fence has been designed with goats in mind. Founder Oscar Hovde Berntsen grew up raising goats and has always had a desire to allow the animals to roam free.

How does it work?

No Fence makes use of a solar powered GPS collar to track animals and train them to stay within a virtual fence. The collar vibrates and beeps when an animal gets too close to the fence and eventually administers a mild electric shock. The collar works in conjunction with the No Fence smartphone app which allows farmers to manage livestock and pastures. There’s also a computer portal where the farmer can access more detailed data on animal behaviour and statistics.

What’s the appeal?

No Fence is currently only available for goats, but they are working on a device for cattle. They believe that virtual fences will give animals more time to graze on a wider variety of pastures and will open up new grazing areas not previously used due to a lack of fencing.

 

What’s Happening in South Africa?

Human Wildlife Solutions have successfully employed virtual fences to control the movements of baboons in the Gordons Bay area, Western Cape. Their virtual fence consists of two complimentary, but independently operable units – a GPS collar and a virtual fence response unit. The response units are used to create a “landscape of fear”.  They are fitted with remotely operated bear-banger launchers and a dual speaker system which plays a variety of sounds such as lion roars to scare baboons as they approach the fence.

The advantages of virtual fencing are apparent, and we look forward to hearing about their use on farms around the world and in South Africa.