THE ability for sheep producers to use virtual fencing will be stymied until there are suitable devices for the sheep to wear.
While work has shown that sheep can be trained to respect virtual fencing with resulting benefits for producers, there is still no commercially ready device which can be fitted to sheep.
This is in contrast to the cattle industry, where GPS-based virtual fencing for cattle is at the point of commercial availability.
Dr Rick Llewellyn from CSIRO in Adelaide, South Australia, told delegates at LambEx field testing had successfully demonstrated the potential application and efficacy of virtual fencing with sheep.
“Results offer strong encouragement for the pursuit of commercial virtual fencing technology for sheep,” Dr Llewellyn said.
“The research results demonstrate there is large potential for grazing management and economic and environmental benefits of virtual fencing for sheep, and also offer strong encouragement for the pursuit of this goal.”
Paddock testing used a sound alert, followed by an electrical stimulus if required, were used to keep sheep in a designated grazing zone.
And despite the general opinion on the intelligence of sheep, they took to the virtual fencing method well.
“The trials have demonstrated strong learning responses from sheep,” Dr Llewellyn said.
“The most recent trials demonstrated the potential for successful grazing management when not all sheep wore a device.”
While the trials showed that the virtual fences were not respected by the mob if only 33 per cent were fitted with a device, this lifted to total respect when 66 percent of the sheep wore the device.
The ability to use virtual fencing to manipulate grazing management was seen as a key incentive to continue to push for systems for sheep.
Dr Llewellyn said increasingly large crop paddock sizes made it difficult to achieve high grazing efficiency without over grazing vulnerable areas.
“Based on being able to avoid having to remove livestock from an entire paddock when just one soil or zone incurs excessive groundcover loss, whole farm income gains of approximately 15 per cent were shown,” he said.
“Introducing special grazing increases the relative profitability of livestock in the system, and in some cases, doubles “profit maximising stocking rate.”
Western Australian farmer Brad Wooldridge from Arthur River and Kalgan said he would be keen to trial virtual fencing, but believed he was unable to as it would not pass through ethics committees which were part of universities in the state.
But he was happy that trials “were being done somewhere”.
“Permanent fencing is very, well, permanent,” he said.
“For the first time, the whole farm in a mixed farm enterprise is available as a feed source.”
Some of the examples he used for the potential of virtual fencing included:
– non-arable or weedy areas in crop paddocks could be as a feed resource using virtual fencing.
– whole paddocks can be seeded at the same time and flowering delayed in a frost prone area using crop grazing
– in the event of a frost, radar satellites can provide early maps of frosted areas and virtual fencing can be used to graze these areas
– an identified area can be cut for quality hay to be put away for the summer.