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What is virtual fencing?

Virtual fencing is a technology used to create invisible boundaries for managing livestock without physical fences. The technology uses GPS, wireless communication, and software to control and monitor animal movements within a designated area.

What is virtual fencing?

The concept of a virtual or digital fence has been on the minds of farmers and researchers for many years and thanks to new technology, virtual fencing is now a practical and viable solution for livestock management. 

Advances in GPS, wireless communication, and animal behaviour understanding have now allowed for the precise control of livestock movements without physical barriers. Animals are fitted with a GPS collar that tracks their location and provides cues like sounds or mild stimuli when they get close to the limits set by the farmers via an app on their phones. 

How does virtual fencing work?

Virtual fencing uses GPS technology and smart collars to manage livestock without physical barriers. Each animal wears a collar equipped with GPS and sometimes other sensors. These collars communicate with a central system that defines virtual boundaries on a digital map.

When an animal approaches or crosses the boundary, the collar emits a series of cues. Initially, these are typically audio signals, like beeps, to alert the animal. If the animal continues toward the boundary, a mild electric pulse, similar to a static shock, is delivered to deter the animal.

Dairy Australia and Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) are two research organisations that are assessing the practical use of virtual fencing on farms across Australia’s livestock industries, including beef, dairy, sheep and pork. Research by AWI is exploring the effectiveness and cost of managing cattle and sheep grazing on crops, pasture, and fallow land using GPS-based virtual fencing.  

In the United States neck collars are proving popular and are readily available, with companies Vence, eSheperd, Corral Technologies and Nofence offering innovative cattle virtual fencing options for ranchers. While dairy farms in New Zealand are seeing benefits of the solar powered Halter collars, with one farmer estimating they saved 1000 hours of travel a year by reducing time spent on motorbikes to move the herd. 

What are the benefits and challenges of virtual fencing?

By eliminating the need for time consuming setup and maintenance of physical fences, virtual fencing can offer producers additional benefits for livestock management: 

Flexibility

Unlike traditional static fences, virtual fences offer farmers flexibility. Through software platforms, farmers can quickly and easily adjust grazing areas, respond to changing conditions, and manage land more effectively. 

Potential cost-savings

Virtual fencing eliminates the need for expensive materials and labour associated with physical fences, reducing long-term operational costs. In 2023, New Zealand based company Halter set up virtual fencing for cattle in Tasmania for $8.50 per month, per cow. Virtual fencing can be viable, but farmers need to consider budget and operational needs to determine if it is economically beneficial.

Improved environmental outcomes

Virtual fencing can prevent overgrazing, ensuring the sustained health of natural vegetation and soil, as well as wildlife habitat preservation, as it removes the need for land clearing to make way for fences. Virtual fencing is also seen as a valuable tool for farmers as they adjust livestock management in response to unpredictable shifts in climate conditions.

While virtual fencing offers benefits to farmers, there are challenges associated with animal welfare, particularly the use of electric shock collars. Regulations vary across Australian states and territories regarding use of these collars. For instance, in NSW, VIC, ACT and SA, the use of electric shock collars on livestock is either banned or highly restricted. 

However, companies like eShepherd and Nofence claim that their technology is far more advanced than the primitive shock collars used to train dogs. They argue that regulations should soon reflect these advancements, allowing their technology to be adopted Australia-wide. 

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