The 21st century pastoralist may one day be able to muster cattle across inland Australia while thousands of kilometres away from the mustering site.
New technologies to monitor and manage livestock, and pastoral stations, by remote control across the vast distances of the continent, are merging to make this possible, according to the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre (DKCRC).
“The new remote management technologies we’ve been trialling at DKCRC may soon allow you to muster the cattle that are ready for market any time, and from any place in the world, provided you’ve got an internet connection,” says Andy Bubb, leader of DKCRC’s 21st Century PastoralismTM project.
"In theory, you could even muster and market your stock while on holiday overseas or at the beach, using a laptop or internet mobile phone.”
“It’s a new approach that gives the pastoralist unprecedented information about individual livestock on a daily basis – something we’ve never had before,” he explains.
“This leads to fingertip control of their management and more informed decisions, including when to market them.
"It’s the kind of control a dairy farmer has – only in a pastoral enterprise spread over thousands of square kilometres."
The new system – under trial on Napperby Station, NT, since April 2007 – identifies individual animals with an electronic ear-tag.
It notes when they come to water, records their weight and can be set to automatically draft those of marketable weight into a holding yard.
“So instead of calling in all the choppers and trucks, mustering the whole paddock, finding quite a few beasts aren’t up to weight and are worth less money, this way those that are up to weight simply muster themselves.
"It takes away the guesswork.
“It’s a fundamental shift in the way we think about livestock management in remote and extensive grazing situations, knowing the condition of every beast in the herd,” Andy explains.
“And you can do it from the homestead - or anywhere in the world,” he adds.
"While the data on the stock may be in the station computer, it is accessible on the internet by laptop or mobile phone, or it might even be stored in the global “computer cloud”.
The hardware consists of a solar-powered electronic eartag reader and weighing scale which report the weight of each animal as it crosses an automatic weighbridge on its way from water, an automatic drafting gate and a radio telemetry link which reports the data back to the homestead.
A videocam can be added to provide visual surveillance.
“As a result of the past year’s trials, I’m confident in saying that the individual parts of the technology work well,” Andy says.
“What we are now working on is packaging it into a complete, workable system and developing the software.”
The automated mustering system can be assembled from available technologies, for a cost of between $10,000-$30,000, depending on configurations – a price that would soon be repaid by the higher returns from livestock marketed in prime condition.
“People ask whether it will lead to job losses," he said.
"First, skilled labour is becoming very scarce in the pastoral industry and this will help.
"Also like most new technologies, it will create demand for different sorts of specialist skills on pastoral stations.
"The bottom line is that it will make the enterprise more profitable – and that usually creates more jobs.”
The automated drafting system is designed to complement other advanced pastoral management technologies, such as remote monitoring of watering points which have already showing they can deliver major cost savings.
To these can be added things such as remote medication of livestock via their water, and remote monitoring of electric fences and station vehicles.
“The idea of mustering cattle while you’re lying on a beach somewhere isn’t as whacko as it sounds,” Andy comments.
“Roy Chisholm, who owns Napperby, did a bore run on his station while he was on holiday in South America – using his laptop to check the state of each water point.
"If you can check a water level you can check and set the weight of stock to muster themselves, then ring for the truck.”
Advances in the use of satellites to monitor vegetation quality from space are likely to open up a whole new era in remote management.
With gates that can be open and shut remotely, the researchers envision pastoralists may one day be able to keep stock moving to where the best grazing is, so protecting and enhancing the native pastures – the way wild game herds behave naturally.
This may be particularly significant if carbon levels are to be restored in the world’s rangelands through more sustainable grazing, in order to combat climate change, Andy adds.
As such, the Australian pioneered system may one day have major export potential.
The automated cattle weighing technology was designed with advice from DKCRC’s partner agency, the Sheep CRC and developed by CAWD Engineering, whose manager, Tim Driver, hopes to have the first commercial model available to industry in 2009-10.
“We’re getting a lot of intelligent questions from pastoralists who are clearly starting to think about how remote management fits into their production system.
"It involves a very different approach to managing animals that hasn’t been much considered in the pastoral industry before,” he says.