Forget the sheepdogs, laptops are the way to go with flocks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2007, 12:00am

Australian farmers could soon be managing their herds not with trusty sheepdogs and battered pickup trucks, but laptop computers.

Scientists are developing the concept of 'e-farming', where land owners herd their sheep or cattle with the help of electronic sensors attached to the animals.

Instead of spending all day astride a horse or motorbike, they will be able to largely run the farm from the comfort of a shady veranda. Hands roughened by years of uncoiling barbed wire will have to adapt to the gentler task of clicking a mouse.

Solar-powered sensors the size of a mobile phone battery would be fitted to collars and attached to livestock. GPS navigation technology would record an animal's exact position on the farm. Motion detectors in the sensors would tell the farmer whether an animal was resting, walking or grazing.

The sensors, being developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, could even monitor the animal's health and weight, determining the best time to send it to market.

The aim of the technology is to enable the most efficient use of pasture and avoid overgrazing - and comes as Australia is suffering the worst drought in living memory.

It would be used in conjunction with another intriguing Australian invention. The organisation's scientists announced in June they had invented a 'virtual fence', dispensing with the need for gates or real fences.

A battery-powered collar around the neck of the cattle gives off a warning sound if they move within a metre or two of the virtual fence, which exists only as a line on a computer. Should animals stray across it, they receive a mild electric shock.

'Virtual fences could be of great benefit across northern Australia, where cattle stations are enormous,' team leader David Henry said.

'They also have applications in areas like the high country of Victoria, where mountain cattle stray into national parks.'

The researchers say it could take five to 10 years to produce a commercial version of the virtual barrier.

Scientists are also working on a miniaturised, commercial version of the animal sensor. 'You could adapt the technology used in GPS chips in mobile phones,' Dr Henry said. 'It could be made small enough to be fitted onto an ear tag.'