A virtual fencing trial has demonstrated grazing options for improved crop management at the Nickolls farm in Pinnaroo.
Heath and Amanda Nickolls crop 700 hectares of wheat, rye, barley and vetch, alongside their Bull Oak Well Angus stud.
They had never been part of a research trial before, but Mr Nickolls said virtual fencing was always of interest.
"We were initially approached by Rick Llewellyn, through CSIRO and Mallee Sustainable Farming, to undertake an early graze then harvest project using the virtual fencing collars," he said.
"But the late season meant our crops weren't mature enough to allow for an early graze, so the project was adjusted into a frost/weed management project using virtual fences.
"The trial paddock also had a brome grass problem because of the crop's late poor germination so we also monitored the effectiveness of grazing to reduce weed seed numbers."
Forty Angus heifers were used in the trial to graze a 4ha area of a Compass barley paddock that was considered poor enough that Mr Nickolls had planned to graze it anyway.
"Using it as cattle feed would have ended up being a better return than harvesting it," he said.
The trial area was divided into 1ha cells, with the cattle moved every 4-5 days across the two-week trial.
The trial observed how well the heifers acclimatised to the fencing and their behaviors in the small trial space, while also measuring weight gains, crop growth and weed presence.
The paddock also included a sensor, which is part of another GRDC-funded CSIRO trial aimed at mapping frosted areas.
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Mr Nickolls said he observed some heifers testing the boundaries more than others.
"But most learned pretty quickly how it worked. Generally it only took one pulse for them to learn the noise warnings and move away from the line," he said.
"It was hard for them though as the smaller cells kept them in tight areas and they were near a fence often, but the trial wanted to test how virtual fencing could be used for intensive grazing of small areas.
"I think if the cattle were in bigger cells, they would be more likely to conform as they would be hearing the beeps less often.
"We probably had about 5pc constantly try to push past the line, so you would probably need boundary fences on a property for peace of mind."
Mr Nickolls said one of the exciting parts about the technology was being able to track the cattle remotely.
"We were down in Adelaide and we were able to watch the cattle through the program," he said.
"You know pretty quickly if one of them has gotten out.
"You could also muster the cattle remotely if you wanted, which would be helpful for when you are away, or if you have another property away from your home block."
Mr Nickolls said he would consider buying the technology once Gallagher released it commercially.
"I would also use it to keep cattle off certain areas, like hills, or fencing them off the good crop in a paddock," he said.
"We also graze our barley before locking it up for harvest, so using it to graze a paddock more evenly.
"It would also be good when trying to manage frost and its effects, to possibly use the cattle to graze out frost-affected areas or delay the flowering window by grazing."
It was good to see the collars work on-farm.- HEATH NICKOLLS
Mr Nickolls said heifers put on about 1 kilogram a day across the two weeks.
"If the project had been run a few weeks earlier, it may have done a better job of reducing the seed set of brome grass," he said.
"But overall, it was good to see the collars work on-farm."
The trial was funded by the GRDC and AWI, in partnership with the CSIRO and Gallagher - the new owners of the eShepherd technology.
"This project was funded through GRDC for testing the potential for weed control benefits, which we also researched at a separate Long Plains site," Mr Llewellyn said.
"We used virtual fencing to apply heavy strip grazing in a vetch paddock and we were able to halve the ryegrass seed heads just by using that approach, compared to open grazing a larger area.
"Even though you will get a few individuals that like to test a fence, we were able to hard graze targeted areas within a standing crop at the Pinnaroo trial using the virtual fencing - I think the biomass impact tells the story."
We want to see how much it could help maximise grazing value, while minimising potential yield losses.- RICK LLEWELLYN
Mr Llewellyn said while Pinnaroo was initially aimed at being a winter dual-purpose crop grazing trial - "an area of most interest to farmers" - the trial still allowed an in-crop test of the technology, which is edging closer to commercial release.
"We want to see how much it could help maximise grazing value, while minimising potential yield losses," he said.
"There is plenty of demand from farmers in the southern region about how virtual fencing might be applied in a mixed farming system.
"We have been testing to see how far we can push the potential application of this technology for use in mixed farming situations and you learn a lot each time.
"The Long Plains trial grazed towards the end of the season in summer, but there wasn't a lot of forage in the paddock, or pasture to graze.
"But in this case we were dealing with a reasonable size late-season barley crop so it was a real test of the fence."
Mr Llewellyn said that while they were still analysing all of the data, including GPS data off the animals and crop mapping, the images show nicely how much targeted grazing pressure can be applied without having physical fence.
"And unlike other trials, Pinnaroo had the animals fenced on three sides, including a back fence, which was another level of complexity and test of the fence in how you can manage livestock in that way, rather than just a simple straight strip fenceline, which a lot of the other trials had been," he said.
Mr Llewellyn said there was a "whole raft of possibilities" when it came to using virtual fencing and grazing for crop management.
"From delaying the flowering window, to selectively grazing some areas, such as frost-affected or weedy areas, to grazing areas based on soil type or simply keeping grazing away from areas needing protection," he said.
Mr Llewellyn said they planned to return to the Nickolls farm next year and conduct the dual-purpose crop trial.
"We hope to graze earlier in the season and manage grazing pressure in a way that helps both the crop and the grazing enterprise across different soil types in a paddock," he said.
"We just need an early break, which we didn't get this year."
Mr Llewellyn said they also had sheep trials planned.
"Neckbands aren't ideal when you have rapidly growing wool, so there'll also be work coming up using prototype ear devices and trialing on wool-less sheep," he said.
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