Could this be the end of wire fences?

Beef cows wear collars that train them to keep within a "virtual" fence.

Beef cows wear collars that train them to keep within a "virtual" fence.

The America's Cup – you may have heard about it. That's the one where clever Kiwis used No 8 wire ingenuity to overcome a team where No 8 represented the zeros in the budget.

What's that got to do with farming, you ask? Well, the racing showcased an amazing new technology similar to one on agriculture's horizon – virtual fencing.

In Bermuda the course boundary was set out using GPS co-ordinates and drawn graphically for television viewers, much like a virtual fence. GPS units informed the sailors how close they were to the boundaries. Most of them understood and acted; some, like Oracle's Aussie helmsman Jimmy Spithill, did not and were pinged.

DairyNZ research engineer Brian Dela Rue.

DairyNZ research engineer Brian Dela Rue.

Similar technology could mean a future where a farmer makes a few taps on a smartphone to create an invisible "virtual" fence around an accurate pasture allocation for his or her herd. The virtual fence then moves stock around the farm, from paddock-to-dairy-to-paddock without intervention – and the farm dog gets its marching orders.

If you think abandoning the fences that stitch together our farming landscape seems a pretty poor bet in your lifetime, then consider this - Gallagher, the inventor of the electric fence, has already put a dollar each way by investing in a virtual-fencing technology company.

The concept has been around for a long time but has made serious progress over the past 10 years as GPS technology has evolved, with field-ready prototypes just emerging.

Animals wear GPS-enabled collars that identify their location relative to invisible fence lines created on a digital farm map. The animals are trained to be guided by audio prompts (beeps) from the collars when required. As an animal gets close to a virtual fence a series of beeps alerts them to the fence boundary. If they cross the fence line they receive a "disincentive", a mild electric shock, and are guided back inside the line.

We've kept a watching brief on this new technology as part of our DairyNZ research into precision agriculture. Much of the work is funded by the Transforming the Dairy Value Chain Primary Growth Partnership programme, a seven-year, $170 million innovation investment led by commercial partners, including DairyNZ and Fonterra, and partnered by the Ministry for Primary Industries.

The potential benefits of virtual fencing are widespread and massive. In addition to cost-savings in permanent fencing, a 2016 Massey University research study by Dan Brier found that potential benefits included environmental protection, improved feed allocation, labour savings and ability to manage animals individually.

Farmers' investment in traditional fencing is huge. There's something like 150,000km of fencing in New Zealand, worth $500 million. If we consider only the waterways fenced by dairy farmers in recent times, that's more than 25,000km.

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Imagine how simple and effective managing stock around exclusion zones (waterways, wetlands, riparian plantings) could be in the future with virtual fencing.

But a lot of that investment has been made already, so the initial opportunity for virtual fencing is likely to be largely in replacing old, damaged fencing, temporary fencing and redevelopment of farm layouts.

Ironically for the infringing Spithill, most of the research into virtual fencing has been done by CSIRO Australia, the clever guys who invented WiFi. Their technology is being tested and commercialised by an Australian company, Agersens, under the brand eShepherd.

The on-farm cost of this system is indicated to be around $2000-$3000 for installation, with the virtual fencing collars about $100 per animal.

Luckily for us, as the America's Cup demonstrated, where there is innovation there are Kiwis. Gallagher has recently got on-board as an investor in eShepherd and AgResearch has a collaborative science interest in this technology.

Another virtual fencing option is being developed by New Zealand technology start-up Halter, established by two enterprising engineering graduates. This collar system has investment from New Zealand's most recent global success story, Rocket Lab, and development support from government grants.

Virtual fencing collars will be solar-powered to maintain the required energy for tracking cow movements and the collar is likely to also incorporate other cow-monitoring technologies, such as activity measurement for heat detection or rumination time as a health indicator. Locational information will add an extra dimension to animal welfare and performance monitoring.

In addition to potentially replacing conventional permanent and temporary fencing, the collars can be used to herd animals around the farm. Cleverly, these systems can create a virtual fence behind an individual animal. So for example, a sitting or unwell cow won't be moved along until she is standing and starts to walk. Allowing cows to walk to the dairy at their own pace is likely to reduce lameness in a herd.

There may also be potential to manage stock movement to reduce nitrogen loading in more sensitive areas of the farm.

As with all new technologies, there are challenges. For dairying, the greatest system performance challenge is likely to be fencing aggressive-grazing cows out of lush pasture when they have cleaned out their current allocation. This grazing pressure scenario is currently untested as most trial work has been done with beef animals where pasture is not as restricted. Brier's study also highlighted some potential barriers related to device reliability and the value perceived by farmers, the training time involved (for animals and farmers), and perceptions around animal welfare.

This latter point is potentially the most significant challenge. The public should at least be reassured that testing of these types of devices on animals is approved by appropriate animal ethics organisations. It's an imperative design feature that no animals are subjected to a prolonged series of shocks, even if a collar fails.

In terms of a timeframe to market, it's highly likely that we'll see more virtual boundaries at the next America's Cup in Auckland before virtual fencing becomes a proven and viable option for dairying.

So, if you've just bought a few electric fence reels at the Fieldays, don't despair, you should still get your money's worth, and there's plenty of time to retrain the new puppy for a different and equally rewarding career in farming.

 - Stuff

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