Virtual fences develop in ‘no leaps and strong bounds’

Brett Good, from Halter, says harvesting more grass to expand revenue is the “gold standard” of dairy farms.

The adoption of virtual fences on dairy farms is benefiting from refinement of the technology, resulting in an improved bottom line for farmers.

The technology, however, is not permitted in Victoria.

The Dairy Industry Leaders’ breakfast on Thursday, January 18 at International Dairy Week in Tatura saw 50 dairy industry representatives and farmers hear of the advances in the technology from virtual fence company Halter.

Virtual fences have been proven to increase the productivity of dairy farms significantly.

Brett Good has worked for Halter in New Zealand and is currently Head of Tasmania for the company.

Mr Good has more than 17 years experience in agriculture and told the audience that virtual fences allowed farmers to run more sustainable and productive farms.

Individual cattle are represented with yellow dots (bottom left) and red dots (top right) within white boundaries where no physical fencing exists.

Australian Dairy Farmers president Ben Bennett said Victorian legislation on the prevention of cruelty to animals needed addressing and said negotiation was an ongoing process.

“The government is hostage to some very strong animal welfare issues,” Mr Bennett said.

“I think farmers would certainly like to see the adoption of the (collars) because it is legal in some other states.

“We are collaborating with animal welfare groups.”

The Victorian Farmers Federation is considered the appropriate advocacy group for negotiating with the state government for legislative change, as the ADF is national body.

According to a federation spokesman, the VFF has committed to maintain its status to develop ‘understanding and advocacy’ for virtual fencing technologies, as discussed and published at their annual conference in July, 2023.

Case studies and live applications of the system’s app were presented at the breakfast, demonstrating how virtual fences have less impact on cattle than electric fences.

The system is fully automated and can be run from a mobile phone.

Towers are erected which can cover about 7000 cows each, depending on topography, and farmers are able to save on costs by installing the towers themselves.

“We do a coverage check on the farm so we can make sure we can cover the farm and help determine the hardware needed,” Mr Good said.

In New Zealand, there are currently 190,000 cows contained by virtual fences.

In one case study, a farm with 1200 cows produced 80,000 kg of milk solids in one year and saved 2700 hours of labour.

Mr Good said the biggest advantage to using the system was being able to harvest grass more effectively.

“Virtual fences reduce the cost of fencing and the labour of staff going out and allocating pasture,” he said.

“Harvesting more grass to expand revenue is the gold standard of dairy farms.

“And the dairy farms that do that well are some of the most profitable dairy farms in Australia.”

CSIRO researcher Dana Campbell found in a 2019 study that more than 70 per cent of cattle responded to audio cues without need for further actions from collars.

The study also reported that virtual fences were comparable to electric fences.

More recent studies report that up to 90 per cent of cattle are responsive.

Mr Good said cows will do a boundary check to learn where the audio cues begin.

“Cattle that breach a boundary are steered back by the collar automatically by receiving audio cues at each ear to turn left and right and re-enter the intended perimeter.

“We are replacing visual cues. We also have safeguards for lame cows or for those who are spooked or bolt.”

The system also provides valuable data on the rate of feeding, chewing and rumination, by determining the frequency of a cow’s movement and pitch of its head.

“It provides real confidence to farmers, given that the market is quite financially stressed at the moment.”

Dairy industry representatives and farmers attended this year's Dairy Industry Leaders' Breakfast during International Dairy Week.