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Beyond the Bale : March 2011
March 2011 BEYOND THE BALE 26 ON-FARM Researchers at the University of New England (UNE) are investigating ways that Global Positioning System (GPS) technology could help farmers improve the utilisation of pasture in rotational grazing systems. The team from the Precision Agriculture Research Group at UNE has used GPS tracking devices on livestock to monitor their grazing behaviour, such as the distance and speed they move, which could indicate how they search for food. The aim is to develop a system that can analyse the GPS data from tracking devices on livestock and then relay messages in real time to the farmer, for example advising the farmer that it could be time to move their flock onto better pasture. Jessica Roberts, who is researching her PhD at UNE, received a bursary from AWI to present a paper on her research at the 15th Australian Agronomy Conference in New Zealand in November 2010. "Monitoring sheep movements in relation to available biomass has the potential to improve pasture utilisation by woolgrowers that rotationally graze their flock," Jessica says. "The objective of this research is to enable an efficient use of available pasture and better match the needs of livestock to the available pasture. "It is anticipated that this system will create an objective basis for effective rotational grazing, that can complement traditional techniques such as visual assessment of the pasture by the farmer." Growing up in Manilla in northern NSW, where her family has been involved with the wool industry for several generations, Jessica developed a keen interest in livestock, going on to receive 1st class honours in a Bachelor of Rural Science at UNE in 2009. The Agronomy Conference was a great opportunity for Jessica to present her paper to leading Australian and international agronomists, soil scientists and farmers. The paper contained results from a preliminary study of whether GPS data of livestock movements could identify changes in animal behaviour caused by decreasing availability of pasture. "The study involved deploying GPS tracking collars on grazing livestock for 46 days, with the collars programmed to collect their location every 10 minutes. We then analysed the data to determine the time spent grazing by the livestock and how far they traveled through the paddock," Jessica says. "Unexpectedly, the amount of time the livestock spent grazing did not seem to be affected by decreasing pasture biomass. However, their overall distribution through the paddock did appear to increase as biomass decreased. This makes some sense as animals start foraging in new areas as old areas are grazed out. "So the results of this study suggest that there is opportunity to use spatial monitoring technologies to understand livestock and pasture interactions. This could enable producers to better schedule livestock movements in rotational systems. "However, the study also highlighted the complexities faced in developing these types of systems. A large body of research remains to be undertaken in this field." While this research is currently using GPS tracking collars, commercially available cattle tracking ear tags are being tested and Jessica envisages that these could be developed for sheep as well. More information: UNE Precision Agriculture Research Group www.une.edu.au/parg Australian Agronomy Conference papers www.regional.org.au/au/asa/2010 FAST FACTS l New research into GPS technology is under way which could help farmers optimise the use of pasture in rotational grazing systems. l The study involves using GPS tracking devices on livestock to assess their grazing behaviour. l AWI provided a bursary to UNE PhD student Jessica Roberts to present a paper on the subject at the recent Australian Agronomy Conference. GPS as aid to rotational grazing Researcher Jessica Roberts adjusts a GPS tracking collar on a sheep.