Although fencing began about 10,000 years ago when humans first began herding cattle, it wasn’t until the early 1970’s that the idea of virtual fencing or fenceless boundaries became a possibility.
In 1973, the fenceless boundary for pets was invented by Richard Peck in the USA. In his system, a wire is buried in the ground and when an animal passes over the boundary, a signal is sent to the collar around the animal’s neck. The system was a success. By the end of the decade, installations were occurring throughout the country and continue to this day.
Idea Ahead of the Technology
However, buried wires are impractical for a farm operation. The goal would be to virtually fence a herd of cattle without wires at all. Putting a collar on one small animal in a residential setting is relatively easy, however, containing large herds of cattle in remote areas of rangeland is quite another challenge. One person who began thinking about virtual fencing for livestock in the 1970’s was Dean Anderson. A graduate student in Waco Texas he has followed a career in agricultural research where he is one of the first scientists to seriously pursue the concept. However, the technology simply was not developed or available at that time.
With the advent of the internet in the 1990’s and huge advances in both radio technology and solar power, Dean Anderson and others began exploring virtual fencing for livestock once more. In particular, in 2003, the CSIRO of Australia began their research into virtual fences and autonomous animal control.
CSIRO Develop a System with Two Patents
The CSIRO developed a virtual fencing and GPS tracking system based on sound animal learning principles and animal welfare. The system involved a device, fitted to the animal’s head using a halter, containing GPS and a means of delivering an audio and a pulse. A base station was used to create a GPS based virtual fence and track the location of the animals. When the animal approached the virtual fence, the device would emit a beeping warning. If the animal continued towards the virtual boundary, the device would deliver a single pulse. The animals quickly learned to associate the audio with the pulse and respond to the audio cue alone, staying within the virtual paddock. The use of classical or “Pavlovian” conditioning and operant learning to train the animals ensured that the welfare of the animals was not at risk.
The main focus of the program was to demonstrate that virtual fencing can effectively keep cattle away from highly valued resources such as a feed attractant, for example, molasses or hay. The program showed that cattle can associate an audio cue with an electric pulse and within a relatively short training time, they learn to avoid a virtual fence line with an audio cue alone. Animal wellbeing was also important with farm testing done to ensure that the short electric pulse was not harmful. The program continued until 2008 and two virtual fence patents were created. The CSIRO team of Caroline Lee, John Henshall, Peter Corke, Matt Reed and Julian O’Grady worked on the first patent. Caroline Lee, Andrew Fisher, John Henshall, Matt Reed, Chris Crossman and Tim Wark were the CSIRO team on the second patent.
While the proof of concept of a GPS fence was established, the cost of implementing the technology in 2008 was still high and for the agriculture industry, the idea of a smart collar was perhaps a little ahead of its time.
Agersens Begin Commercial Development
Then in 2012, Ian Reilly, CEO of Agersens was in Central Queensland listening to beef producers talk about their issues, such as optimized grazing with grass-fed livestock and managing pasture resources. Farm operations were looking for a way to control animal movement and manage the grazing behavior of their cattle. In the dairy world, farmers were looking to maximize the yield, and optimize rotational or strip grazing to increase milk production.
With a background in engineering and product development, Ian Reilly realized that flexible virtual boundaries would answer many of these concerns.
The technology was now in place to create virtual fences anywhere on the land. Farmers could monitor cows from anywhere in the world to get up to date information on their operation, while reducing fencing and labor costs. With the CSIRO and the Victorian Driving Business Innovation grant of 2014, a feasibility study was completed that created momentum for the commercialisation of a livestock management system. Ian Reilly founded the agtech company Agersens in June 2014 to commercialise the CSIRO technology and the company has launched eShepherd™as the world’s first virtual fencing product for beef and dairy cattle. Agersens and CSIRO finalized an exclusive licence of the CSIRO virtual fencing patents in 2015.
Virtual Fencing Trials Begin with eShepherd
By the end of 2016, the initial team of Chief Technical Officer Chris Leigh-Lancaster, Animal Behaviour Scientist Sally Haynes and Engineer Will Farrer had a prototype in place named eShepherd™. Then in 2017, farm testing began with a number of key trials. The eco-riparian trial in Tumbarumba not only demonstrated that the eShepherd™ system was effective in fencing off protected areas but it also showed that Agersens was on track with both hardware and software development. A further break feeding trial with the CSIRO demonstrated how the eShepherd could employ dynamic boundaries to ensure maximum utilisation of pasture.
Livestock Virtual Fencing Launched by Agersens
In 2018, the company has now grown with over 40 employees now involved in the development of virtual fencing. The eShepherd product has launched in Australia and will roll out to other countries in 2019. It builds on the original grazing technology of the CSIRO and enhances it in many ways. It is now a solar powered GPS collar; a lightweight device communicating with a LoRa base station connected to the Internet. You can now control your cattle grazing directly from your smartphone and you can control it from any location. More than simply automated livestock management, eShepherd promotes sustainable agriculture.
It is the future of livestock grazing management.