Find my beef

Mark Trotter

Imagine a world where producers can know exactly where their livestock are in real time without leaving the homestead? Well, this is now possible with GPS tracking technology and behavioural monitoring sensors. These sensors know exactly where an animal is and how it is behaving, and have abundant applications for producers, from simply detecting if an animal has escaped from a paddock through to more complex behavioural modelling which can detect if a cow is about to calve, is being chased by dogs, or is suffering from disease.

It kind of works like your Fitbit (except it does not count a cow’s steps) and it measures fine-scale behaviours.

Track your cattle in the paddock

GPS tracking not only allows us to see where an animal is located, but it can also tell us when it last went to water, how long it spent grazing today, which areas of the paddock it prefers to graze and which areas it avoids.

One of the problems with GPS tracking livestock is that it uses a lot of power – just like your phone in Google maps mode. This means we can only obtain information on the animal’s location occasionally when deployed on a collar carrying a long-life battery, and even less frequently as an ear tag.

If only cows could be taught to recharge their ear tags overnight!’

Researchers from CQUniversity’s Precision Livestock Management team and its School of Engineering and Technology are currently working on a range of innovations to make GPS more energy efficient and even generate power for the battery while the animals graze by using solar panels.

Cows in a paddock

Detect early anomalies

Accelerometer sensors measure very fine-scale movements of the animal. They can pick up and differentiate between the rhythmic pattern of grazing, travelling, standing and ruminating activities.

As well as determining how these normal behaviours might change, these sensors can also be used to detect key production issues, pests and diseases.

For instance, the sensors can pick up something wrong when the animals flick their heads and ears when being harassed by flies.

These sensors can also pick up unusually high activity levels, which can be related to active mustering, stock theft or even predation.

Accelerometers are now widely used in the dairy industry to detect behaviours associated with cows in oestrus – a great tool for knowing exactly when to undertake artificial insemination. The issue is getting these system working in more remote and difficult country where most of our beef production is based.

Connecting the cow to the cloud

So, even if all cattle have these tags how will we manage the data from the device on the animals, back through a system that provides the appropriate alert to the animal manager.

In dairy systems this is fairly easy: cows come in to be milked every day.

But, in extensive beef operations, it’s a different story as animals may only be seen a few times each year.

My team of researchers are currently investigating some ways of making this work with a range of ground-based (LORA, Telstra’s Narrow Band IoT) and satellite connections being evaluated.

CQUniversity is the official higher education and research partner for Beef Australia 2018. Beef Australia is the cattle industry’s national exposition and largest event of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. It is held just once every three years in Australia’s beef capital, Rockhampton.

Associate Professor Mark Trotter is a senior member of CQUniversity’s Precision Livestock Management team. His research speciality is the development of sensors and management techniques that enable producers to increase production and efficiency in the face of variation found in soils, plants and animals. Marks key areas of interest include developing biomass sensors (AOS and Lidar) for pastures and location (GPS) and behaviour (IMU) sensors for animal monitoring.

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