Cows and technology in remote Australia

Guest Host: Sally Leigo

Sally lives in Alice Springs and travels frequently around remote Australia leading a research project for the beef industry called the Precision Pastoral Management Tools Project. It is one of twelve research projects being undertaken by the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (CRC-REP). She is employed by both the CRC-REP and the NT Department of Primary Industry & Fisheries.

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Some of the most important people in my life are invisible. No, I don’t mean that I have imaginary friends! But like many people living and working in remote Australia, many of my loved ones live interstate, overseas or just many, many hours of driving away.

Hi folks, my name is Sally Leigo

While I live in Alice Springs, I travel frequently around remote Australia leading a research project for the beef industry called the Precision Pastoral Management Tools Project. It is one of twelve research projects being undertaken by the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (CRC-REP). I am employed by both the CRC-REP and the NT Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries. Stay with me, the exciting stuff is coming.

How did I end up here?

Well after an amazing childhood on a sheep and cattle property in far-Western NSW, 10 years of education in Sydney and a couple of years in the artificial breeding industry of Northern NSW, I realised that I needed to get back out into the bush. I landed my dream job of working with cattle stations running research and extension projects in the Northern Territory.

These projects focused on boosting productivity, profitability and ensuring that there are still families living the outback life. While I initially planned to move here for 5 years, it is now 10 years on and I still love my work, the people I meet, the places I travel to and calling Alice Springs home. But it does come with sacrifices. I don’t have a weekly roast with my parents, I only see my family and friends a couple of times a year and most of my savings have gone into airfares.

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Technology has changed communication

While isolation has not changed over the thousands of years that Australians have lived in remote Australia, how we communicate has. Technology has changed how and when we communicate and in my own experience lessened the loneliness that can be felt in these parts. I am constantly amazed that I can feel like a part of my godchild’s life in San Francisco, holiday with my sister in Sweden from my lounge-room or bounce ideas past international colleagues.

Technology also enables cattle producers in regional areas of Australia to manage their cattle on an individual basis and sight every animal more than once a day. This in the past has not been a possibility for those in remote Australia. Managing and caring for large numbers of cattle (1000 – 70,000 head) across vast areas of land (200 – 15,000km2) is a constant demand on the station owners/managers time, leaving little available for identifying areas of improvement within the cattle herd or the grazing land. But with some pretty amazing technology we can now provide producers with the opportunity to get to know their cattle and pastures a bit more without needing to leave their office.

Now before you think that we have gone and built Facebook, Twitter or even Tinder for cows, I will run you through our research work to date!

Initial work

Back in 2007, after consultation with beef producers, Ninti One undertook a project to develop a system that could automatically weigh and draft cattle as they entered a watering point on a cattle station. This allows producers to get liveweights on their cattle (individually!) and draft them accordingly without a single staff member needed to carry out the work. Fast forward six years: that project has been completed and the company Precision Pastoral P/L is tasked with commercialising the technology.

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Progress

While work continues on the commercialisation of the Remote Livestock Management System (RLMS), CRC-REP is looking at what other technology products could benefit beef producers. For example, once beef producers start using the RLMS and receiving weekly liveweight cattle data, they will notice fluctuations from week to week (either positive or negative).

This is where the Precision Pastoral Management Tools (PPMT) project steps in. We want to see if we can use existing technology products in combination with the data from the RLMS to determine whether fluctuations in liveweight are greatly influenced by the performance of the pasture.

Current work

So, the PPMT project is monitoring not only the performance of cattle remotely (via the RLMS) but also the pasture. To date we have developed a prototype called the Precision Pastoral Management System (PPMS) that draws multiple data products into one cloud-based online system and customises it for each cattle station.

We began testing the PPMS on three different cattle stations in 2013 and will test it on another three stations in 2014. The station owners and managers using our PPMS are able to log-in to their customised PPMS at any time and from anywhere and see on a weekly basis the performance of their cattle and pastures.

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While working on these commercial cattle stations, we want to see if the system is accurate, reliable and robust enough for beef producers. Also, we want to measure the benefits for producers economically, environmentally and personally. And through working with our station owners and managers receive development advice on how we can improve the PPMS for future beef producers. It is planned that after testing the PPMS for two wet seasons and two dry seasons we will report back our findings to the industry via a series of field days held at each of the participating cattle stations.

Anticipated benefits 

We expect that through the use of the PPMS, beef producers will be able to improve their precision in matching stocking rates to available pasture, leading to improved liveweight gain, calving rates and condition of the grazing land. With hard data on their cattle and pasture performance, producers will be better able to make strategic decisions at the right time. These benefits should result in improved profitability for the business. Our research is measuring the scale and impact of these benefits.

Watch our space

If you are interested in learning more, please feel free to visit the PPMT project’s website.

I hope you have found this article of interest and like me are excited about the future for the beef industry of remote Australia and the exciting technology opportunities to come. Before I sign off, I would just like to acknowledge the projects partners because without their contributions and support our technology and research would not be possible:

Partners

See you somewhere in remote Australia!

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