Farm Ireland

Saturday 20 January 2018

GPS technology offers alternative to paddock fences

€300 virtual fence 'shocks' cows into staying put

Researcher Christine Umstatter with the 'virtual' fence
Researcher Christine Umstatter with the 'virtual' fence
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

A farm without fences? A grass map of every paddock? Calving alerts? Welcome to dairy farming in the 21st century.

The emergence of low-cost global positioning satellite (GPS) technology is set to eliminate the need for paddock fencing, broaden the scope of grass measuring devices, and help farmers save more calves at birth if exhibits at the Moorepark'15 open day were anything to go by.

Scientists are on the cusp of commercialising the same technology that has been used in dog collars to keep dogs from roaming outside their owner's property.

A collar, embedded with a GPS device, emits a beep when a cow moves beyond a certain point in the field. If she goes a few metres further, she gets a shock similar to that off an electric wire.

The invisible boundary can be infinitely altered by the farmer drawing lines on a map on their computer screen.

"We're developing a teaching protocol for the cow, and they are proving to be fast learners," said lead researcher, Christina Umstatter. She has been working on prototypes for years in a joint project between Swiss and Irish agri-researchers.

"The same system works perfectly for dogs, so there's no reason why it won't work for cows. The only difference is that the old systems relied on some kind of a cable laid down in the ground to determine the perimeter.

"This system requires no infrastructure at all, except fencing around the outside of the farm to keep other people's animals out," she said.

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The device is expected to retail at €300 per animal initially.

However, researchers are still working on developing an affordable power source for the device.

"It could be charged in the milking parlour, or it could be a long life battery, but it would need to last for a minimum of six months, which can be an issue cost-wise," said Ms Umstatter.

'Grasshopper' plate meter

Also launched at the event was a new improved version of the rising plate-meter for measuring grass.

The brain-child of Clareman Paddy Halton, the Grasshopper will beam each grass measurement into the cloud, thus eliminating the need for notebooks or laboriously imputing data on computers afterwards.

In addition, the GPS technology embedded on the €799 device 'geotags' each measurement, allowing yield maps of each field to be generated over time. Mr Halton aims to continue manufacturing the device in Shannon, and is already exploring strong interest in the device from abroad.

Calving monitor

Teagasc researchers have also had a positive initial experience using calving alert devices to help minimise losses at calving. One in four of calves lost at birth are from unobserved calvings, according to Moorepark's Jonathon Kenneally.

"It's definitely a good aid for farmers, but we'll have a much more extensive trial next year when we'll be comparing up to four other devices against this pedometer.

"This one worked by sending an alert to the farmer's phone when the cow's tail was raised for a prolonged period. One of its advantages is that it can be easily transferred from cow to cow," he said.

Indo Farming