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Sensor networks to manage remote livestock


Finding 200 cattle in an 8000 hectare paddock is not quite as bad as looking for a needle in a hay stack - but it comes close. Using mobile telemetry towers and cost effective sensors is helping Tom Jackson not only find his cattle, but also apply intensive livestock management in an extensive situation.

For most farmers, 8000 hectares represents a sizable holding. For Tom Jackson, it is one paddock. Farming about 700km north of Perth, Tom and his family run a 170,000 hectare pastoral property in what is supposed to be 200-210mm rainfall country. “The farm was supposed to be able to carry 5000 ewes and 500 breeding cattle. This was based on achieving five out of ten winters having good rain,” said Tom who farms with his wife Barbara, son-in-law Martin and daughter Joanna. Since moving to the Southern Rangelands of Western Australia in 2001, the Jacksons have experienced one winter with good rainfall, not the predicted five in 10. Following two winters with no rain, they had to completely destock. “Destocking for over four years enabled native pastures to rejuvenate; in that time we saw a dramatic increase in pasture cover and rainfall infiltration and perennial species have returned. “We can have over 500 species in our pasture and I knew we needed to farm these complex biological systems differently from the monocultures we see in the intensive farming areas.” Tom wanted to develop a low cost, low labour rotational grazing system. In 2011, 200 head of cattle were reintroduced to a single paddock of 8000ha. Cost effective information gathering is an essential component of this approach.

 “I want to know where the cattle are grazing and how far/fast they are moving across the pasture. I want to know that the electric fences are working, the water troughs are filling and the gates are shut.”

 Telemetry network

 After much research Tom found Taggle and he is now field testing and debugging the sensor/telemetry system. This telemetry system is used to monitor livestock locations, 150km of electric fences, four to six water points and about 10 gates. The monitor signals are received by four towers (a minimum of three required for triangulation for position location) which on send by Next G® to Sydney where signals are processed and returned to via the web. Tom has mounted each solar powered tower on a trailer so it can be towed behind a utility and easily relocated in order to maintain the best signal in relation to where the cattle are grazing. There is currently a 30 to 60 minute real time delay. New tags will be transmitting every five minutes rather than every 20 minutes, so the lag time will reduce dramatically.

Sensor connection

 The same transmitter with different sensors attached is used for three separate applications and has up to 15 years of battery life Five thousand litre mobile cups and saucer troughs fitted with solar powered pumps have replaced the 50 windmill pumped bores. In addition five mobile water points are run within the area Tom wishes the cattle to graze. Each is fitted with two sensors, one located on the inlet (flow) and one in the tank (depth). Today Tom only needs to check water once a week, rather than three times - a big saving in time and kilometres. The sensors on the electric fences count the pulses over 3000 volts, the minimum required voltage. Basically if no count is received Tom knows there is a problem with the fence. A system of magnets and sensors on the gates is used to identify gates that have been left open.

Livestock tracking

 Tag based transmitters offer a cheap solution to livestock tracking in these large areas. Tom has tagged about 10 percent of the herd and the bull. While the ideal would be to have a tag on every animal, he is establishing the minimum ratio of tags to animals, if less than one is used. Current tags give a location to about +/-20m, so Tom is considering using a quad copter to find animals that have moved from that position. Tag design continues to evolve, with the current design offering a three year battery life but being rather too brittle, it can be lost. However, as the tag continues to transmit it can be retrieved and attached to conventional ear tags. At this point Tom estimates he has invested less than $50,000 to achieve this system and is pleased with the payback.

 “The remote livestock monitoring system is giving us the confidence to run rotational grazing without degrading our land, even in dry years.”