FOR pastoralists in the Western Australian outback, running a cattle station is a job like no other.
The vast - and seemingly endless - stretches of sparsely populated red dirt make for some of the country's toughest farming land.
They also add a layer of difficulty to monitoring thousands of cattle, which roam and forage for feed across far-flung paddocks.
With that in mind, most people may think "farming without fencing" sounds like an outlandish and bizarre solution.
But Rio Tinto's Hamersley station, just outside of Tom Price in the Pilbara, has identified virtual fencing as a potential game changer, revolutionising cattle production as we know it.
The mining giant has been trialling virtual fencing technology since April, as part of the Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) and The University of Western Australia's (UWA) BeefLinks project.
It aims to help resource utilisation and improve rangeland health using invisible boundaries, satellite co-ordinates, GPS cattle collars, onsite telemetery towers and an app to monitor livestock movement.
In summary - the technology has the ability to contain or move livestock without using physical fences.
Rio Tinto presented the idea of virtual fencing to the team leading BeefLinks, as a way to make cattle farming smarter, more profitable and less labour intensive.
And also a potential solution to running farming and mining operations simultaneously, given that iron ore mines and cattle stations share the same land.
"Rio Tinto owns six cattle stations across about 1.1 million hectares and have been looking for opportunities to optimise our ownership of them," said Rio Tinto pastoral stations manager Sim Mathwin.
"There are often reports of cattle finding their way into our mining sites and onto various infrastructure, including our railway lines.
"The concept of virtual fencing would prevent that access through programming collars.
"Not only that, but it also requires very little maintenance and means if there is a flood or fire the fence wouldn't be washed or burnt out as a physical fence would be.
"The potential is huge, but we are very much in the early stages of understanding that."
So how exactly does virtual fencing work?
The first of three virtual fencing trial phases started in April this year, with 20 cows in a five-hectare paddock.
Livestock were tightly controlled and managed over the course of a month.
In the second phase, which recently finished, numbers were increased to 100 animals across 500ha for three months.
The third and final phase of the trial is planned for next year, and is set to involve 500 cattle collars and containing animals within a 1600ha area within a larger paddock.
It may be early days, but Mr Mathwin said the trial - which had been approved by the Animal Ethics Committee - had already shown great promise.
And if proven successful, the technology could be shared with the broader cattle industry and also be used to help boost regional economic development.
"If it goes to plan, cattle could be managed for environmental reasons and to protect heritage sites.
"Carbon projects have also become something of interest to pastoralists that need grazing cattle to be managed quite carefully, and virtual fencing enables that management.
"If carbon projects go in the direction they are expected to then I think they will become significant for virtual fencing."
There is also potential for producer's to use the technology remotely for mustering cattle.
This could be done by programming the invisible boundary to close in on a herd until animals are where they need to be, but this still needs testing and optimising.
The main challenges with that would be managing the time of moving cattle and ensuring it wasn't done too quickly.
"It is pretty exciting when we start blue-sky thinking and the various opportunities virtual fencing offers," Mr Mathwin said.
"At the moment virtual fencing collars are not commercially available, so ultimately once the trial is complete we want to change that legislation.
"Then we would work with pastoralists externally to Rio Tinto's stations to involve them in the trial, so then when it is commercially available anyone is able to take it up."
Last month, the State government announced amendments to the Animal Welfare Regulations (2003), allowing the use of the eShepherd virtual collars in WA commercial cattle operations.
The amendment at this point is specific only to Gallagher Animal Management's eShepherd virtual fencing, but Department of Primary Industries Research and Development (DPIRD) regulatory officers have encouraged other companies with equivalent products to apply for their products to be assessed for listing on the amendments table.
UWA animal scientist and virtual fencing project leader Professor Phil Vercoe said there were many positives in virtual fencing, which made the technology valuable for both Rio Tinto and the wider cattle community.
Those benefits could be seen in productivity, breeding, genetics and the environment in managing grazing pressure.
"There are the productivity benefits of better use of feed that comes with understanding the nutritional value of forages, what animals are eating and where they are going to find their feed," Mr Vercoe said.
"Having the ability to manage those animals better to the feedbase at different times would allow producers to manage grazing pressures using virtual fencing.
"Then there are also the environmental benefits of keeping ground cover in check and animals out of sensitive or at risk areas, including more fragile areas of the rangelands, onfarm infrastructure and also roads."
Mr Vercoe said virtual fencing could also allow for tighter management of breeding programs in the future on these large extensively managed stations.
This can often be a challenge in northern WA, given many pastoralists only see their animals once a year at muster.
He said to develop a breeding program animals had to be kept in different areas and herd structure needed to be managed.
For example - separating bulls and managing mickey bulls that come into the system.
"Reproductive success and efficiency comes with tighter management around weaning, which leads to improved lifetime reproductive performance," Mr Vercoe said.
"I think virtual fencing is a really exciting tool and it has the potential to allow producers to do that level of management and be more strategic more easily."
Mr Vercoe said there would also be benefits of having measurements at an individual rather than a whole of herd scale through improved production efficiency, animal welfare and health by, for example, picking up lame or sick livestock more easily and more quickly.
This data would be fed back through the remote system and is information that would otherwise never be identified.
"You can't just monitor animals in landscapes (like the Kimberley and Pilbara regions) the same way you might in a dairy or feedlot," he said.
Three telemetry towers have been installed to relay data at Hamersley station for the trial.
Towers deliver messages to the fencing, while collars feed information back through to the towers.
Using an app, producers can program when and how often they receive a signal or data from the animals.
Information is processed through the app and can be accessed on a smartphone, laptop or tablet, allowing for the movement and behaviour of individual animals to be tracked.
"For research purposes we often want more data than a producer would need," Mr Vercoe said.
"So we might be interested in receiving five minute data points to track where animals are, while others may only need the data a couple of times a day.
"Of course, how often data is uploaded or downloaded determines the battery life of the collar and that is the main challenge if you want to receive frequent signals."
Battery life in collars depends on the intensity and extensiveness of areas and grazing scenarios and can range anywhere from seven to eight months through to a couple of years.
How often the signal hits the tower and exchanges data ultimately determines the variation.
As part of the research project, faecal samples have also been collected to measure stress levels of animals as well as to identify the plants the animals have been eating.
Dr Vercoe said in terms of fitting the collars, producers would need to consider the different sizes and shapes of cattle breeds.
"For example, Brahmans have quite a loose neck, so they have folds of skin, much more than the British breeds," he said.
"If the collar flips or there is a fault, alarms are set off, which sends an alert that there is an issue.
"There are various checks and balances in place as a safety net, to prevent animals from being repeatedly shocked by the electronic pulses by mistake."
Collars are hired through a rental system and are replaced at the end of battery life.
The main control box is made of hard, durable plastic and the collar itself is an adjustable latex strap designed to minimise any abrasion.
There is also a counterbalanced two kilogram weight used to hold the collar in place and maintain the positioning of the control box.
Trials monitored the straps and whether or not they rubbed, were the right fit for the animal or if there was a degree of flexibility in them.
"While that may require more handling than what would otherwise be done, at least producers would know where their animals are if they have collars on them," Mr Vercoe said.
"There is some evidence from other research that has been done with virtual fencing that not every animal necessarily needs to be collared to manage the animals, providing the 'right' animals have collars to make use of natural behaviour and herd dynamics.
"But again, it just depends on what purpose the collars are being used for and what is trying to be achieved, which will change with each producer's objective."
When it comes to the cost of virtual fencing, producers can expect to pay $40 per cattle collar through a rental agreement.
Meanwhile, the towers are estimated to cost about $10,000 each.
But, when compared to the labour and cost of installing physical fences, Mr Vercoe said it was starting to seem like a worthwhile investment, and the research they were doing is trying to help producers make the decision of whether to invest or not.
"Physical fencing costs a substantial amount of money and if you think about the peripheral boundary and internal boundaries it becomes quite astronomical," he said.
"A number of towers could be installed before producers would get anywhere near the level of management that is needed to put physical fences in.
"It is exciting - we have certainly found that it is doable in our northern WA environment and there haven't been any major challenges, but we have one more phase of this work to do and we are hoping that the data we generate will help pastoralists sum up the dollar value of it all and decide whether they want to have a crack or not."
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