Fitness tracker for cows to help Australian farmers

CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, and agtech startup Ceres Tag have created a new type of ‘fit bit’ to help farmers keep track of their livestock.

The new technology, which takes the form of a smart ear tag, produces similar data to that delivered by consumer smart watches.

Using the device farmers can track where their herds graze, if an animal has escaped or been stolen, and even unusual movements which could indicate an animal is giving birth or sick.

The smart ear tag was successfully trialled on 100 cattle at CSIRO’s Lansdown Research Station near Townsville, Queensland, last week.

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The aim is to save farmers time and money compared to the costs of manually tracking their herds using vehicles or aircraft.

David Smith, CEO of Ceres Tag, said Ceres Tag gives greater transparency over grazing management, allowing farmers to locate and monitor their animals to reduce risk and operating costs, improve efficiency and assist with traceability.

“The tag is GPS-enabled, allowing farmers to track the location of individual animals remotely, via Internet of Things (IoT) capability,” he said.

Using on-board accelerometers, the tag can send out alerts for unusual activity patterns which could be triggered by events like theft and other disturbances of the herd.

CSIRO group leader Ed Charmley said Australian farmers need every bit of help they can get right now.

“We are pleased it has taken less than a year for this technology to move from the research phase into development for a real-world trial on cattle.

“Our focus for future iterations is to create a smaller and lighter tag, as well as added functionality such as a temperature sensor, which could alert farmers to illnesses at an earlier stage,” said Charmley.

Ceres Tag will be on show at the digital forum at MLA’s Red Meat 2018 event in Canberra on November 22 – 23 and the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture in Brisbane the following week.

The tags aspire to be the world’s first smart ear tag accredited for provenance to international traceability standards, including Australia’s National Livestock Identification System (NLIS).

They are designed for improved retention and to last throughout the life of the animal in Australia’s unique and often harsh conditions.

CSIRO and Ceres Tag will release further iterations of the smart ear tag, drawing on CSIRO’s deep livestock knowledge and the sensing and data analytics expertise of its technology arm, Data61.

The development of the smart ear tag was co-funded by MLA Donor Company.

Climate adaptation project helps local producers cope with drought

The Queensland government is investing millions of dollars to help producers better manage drought and climate events with new tools including more reliable forecasting, insurance products and customised climate information.

Visiting the University of Southern Queensland campus at Toowoomba on November 7, minister for agricultural industry development Mark Furner said the $21-million Drought and Climate Adaptation Program (DCAP) was a partnership with leading scientists and industry to assist the grazing, cropping and horticulture industries.

The university is delivering two DCAP projects through the Queensland Drought Mitigation Centre to better understand droughts and climate variability, said Furner.

The Northern Australia Climate Program is an $8m partnership between the Queensland government, the university, and Meat and Livestock Australia Donor Company to help the grazing industry better manage drought and climate risks.

READ: Farmers call for drought policy reform in New South Wales

“The project is improving reliability of multi-week, seasonal and multi-year forecasts, and establishing a network of ‘Climate Mates’ to support the delivery of customised climate information and products into regional networks to help with business decision-making,” said Furner.

The university has also partnered with the Queensland Farmer’s Federation and international insurance company Willis Towers Watson to research and develop innovative and affordable insurance products tailored to Queensland’s cropping and horticulture industries, he said.

The team was working with a local dryland cropping farmer to discuss coverage of production costs if there’s insufficient rainfall/soil moisture during the fallow season, and if viable, this soil moisture index product could have wide usage for dryland cropping throughout Queensland and nationally, said Furner.

“Another local DCAP project is a partnership between the Queensland government and the Bureau of Meteorology looking at improved forecasts for the vegetable industry.

“Improving multi-week and seasonal forecasts and extreme weather events such as storms and heat waves will help improve farm, business and labour management decisions and these are being trialled in the Lockyer Valley and Granite Belt regions,” he said.

“DCAP’s projects will assist our primary producers and the agri-business sector in the Darling Downs and right across Queensland to manage the negative impacts of severe climate events and take better advantage of good seasons when they occur,” said Furner.

Dung beetles could help productivity in meat industry

Dung beetles are tipped to help the red meat industry become more productive and carbon neutral by 2030.

They’re already part of the sustainability recipe for one farming family with a diverse livestock enterprise.

Carly and Darren Noble run Jersey dairy cows, Merino, Dexter, Lowline and White Suffolk studs and a commercial Dexter herd producing boutique boxed beef on 80-hectare.

The high productivity is enabled by healthy soils and dung beetles, Meat and Livestock Australia explains.

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The Nobles aim to run 1.5 cows and five sheep/ha while maintaining year-round groundcover supported by good soil management.

They blend age-old farming techniques and a willingness to think outside the square in their biodynamic, organic system.

On any given day, the couple can be found spreading homemade compost on pastures, monitoring manure for beetle activity and rotating livestock through ‘biozones’ (grazing areas of barley, grass and natural woodlands to promote natural foraging patterns).

Carly uses soil tests and photos to document soil condition, a program she started in 2006 when only 60 per cent of their first farm had groundcover and topsoil was just 5cm deep.

“We targeted paddocks with lime, manure and compost, have increased groundcover to 90 per cent of the farm and built topsoil to 30cm,” she said.

The compost is created from livestock and chook manure and shredded straw.

Crops are turned into green manure with slashing, spreading and scarifying.

Earth banks have been built to control overland flow and avoid soil erosion, and the pair have planted hawthorn hedges, an old English farming practice to create shelterbelts for livestock and biodiversity benefits.

Carly manages soils and pastures to optimise livestock nutrition.

“We have 25–30 natural species of pasture or conservation flora, as well as legume crops such as chicory, peas and beans, which provides access to a diverse diet,” she said.

The Noble’s livestock aren’t the only ones benefiting from dietary diversity.

When Carly first noticed dung beetles on their farms in 2002, she recorded four different species and an average of five to seven holes and 21 beetles per pile, in around 75 per cent of manure.

Each hole led to a 40cm deep tunnel, made by the beetles to carry organic matter down (thus storing carbon in the soil) and bring deeper soil up to aerate the soil and free up compacted areas.

Carly has now established a system to ‘farm’ dung beetles to promote their activity across the farm and tap into the benefits of improved plant growth and carbon storage in soils.

She uses harrows to break-up soil, moves 2.5kg piles of fresh manure to these ploughed areas, then transfers dung beetles to these plots to begin the process of building underground filtration of soil.

She monitors manure early in the morning and in the evening, when dung beetles are most active, and has seen beetle behaviour change based on the season and livestock diet.

“When cattle and sheep grazed hay and vetch over summer, there were five to six holes in each manure pile, whereas in April and May, when animals also received seaweed and brewer’s mash, activity increased to seven to eight holes per manure paddy,” she said.

“In our most recent monitoring, we have dung beetles active in 82 per cent of manure piles and there are 11–12 larvae holes per paddy,” said Carly.

Anecdotally, Carly has observed a benefit to livestock health, with reduced parasite burdens.

She said livestock are also reaching weight targets earlier, for example, 14-month-old Dexter steers now weigh 350kg – a target previously achieved at 18 months.

MLA is leading a large and unique collaborative research project to rear existing and introduce two new strains of dung beetles across southern Australia and WA.

The project involves collaboration between MLA, the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, Charles Sturt University, University of Western Australia, University of New England, CSIRO, Landcare Research New Zealand, Western Australian Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, Dung Beetle Solutions Australia, and Warren Catchments Council, Leschenault Catchment Council and the Mingenew-Irwin Group.


Carbon neutrality achieved in farms without compromising productivity

A University of Melbourne study has helped farmers reduce the carbon balance on their farms.

Mark Wootton and Eve Kantor run 25,000 Merino ewes and 300 Poll Hereford breeders on 3,378ha at Hamilton, Victoria.

After being approached by researchers, they were interested to see how their wool, lamb and beef business could operate in a ‘zero carbon’ global economy.

Wootton said he had serious concerns about the risk of climate change for an intensive system like theirs.

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“We wanted to see if it was possible to produce carbon neutral food and fibre.

“The study showed us there is no silver bullet and reducing greenhouse gas emissions needs to be multi-layered, but it is possible to achieve carbon neutrality without compromising productivity,” said Wootton.

Wootton and Kantor have integrated tree plantings with grazing across their farms.

Since 1997, they have re-vegetated more than 600ha with indigenous trees and shrubs and timber species, for permanent environmental plantings and farm forestry.

Their farms’ emissions from livestock, energy and transport are being offset by the carbon sequestered in these trees and soils.

The University of Melbourne study found that with 20 per cent of the farm planted to trees, the stocking rates at were carbon positive over a 25-year period.

The trees contributed to a 48 per cent reduction in emissions between 2000 and 2014, and a 70 per cent reduction to 2020.

The carbon sink provided by the trees has also allowed the pair to participate in carbon offsetting projects, including selling carbon neutral wool to an Italian fashion label, Quatha, through The Merino Company in 2009.

Tree plantings offset 830 tonnes of carbon equivalents for 84 bales of wool.

They have also planted trees for Greenfleet, who were paid by third parties to offset their vehicle emissions.

The trees not only reduce the impact of climate change but provide shelter for lambing and, together with revegetated waterways, wetlands and well-managed pastures, contribute to an adaptive and resilient farming system.

Kantor said they had seen bird species increase from 47 to 159 species over the past 20 years.

“This biodiversity is a good indicator of a healthy production system,” she said.

Wootton and Kantor are also lowering their reliance on fossil fuel by installing solar panels at their house and sheds, solar pumps and using more efficient electrical pumps.


Coles increases milk prices to help drought affected farmers

Coles has increased the price of its 3-litre own brand milk from $3.00 to $3.30 in all states to help drought affected farmers.

The price increase started in late-September and will be in place until the end of the year, with 100 per cent of the increase donated to farmers.

Coles and its customers have already committed about $12 million to drought relief, including $5m from the Coles nurture fund to assist drought-affected farmers.

Farmers affected by drought will receive the donations from the milk through the National Farmers’ Federation’s 2018 drought relief fund.

READ: Lamb wins big at Sydney Royal Taste of Excellence Awards despite drought

Coles has been partnering with the federation since 2012, to support Australian farmers.

Coles’ fresh milk is 100 per cent Australian.

For several years, Coles has sold a number of milk brands with a percentage of sales going to support dairy farmers in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

Customers could also make donations at any Coles checkout across Australia for the months of August and September, with Coles matching donations dollar for dollar.

Organisations such as the Australian Red Cross are also helping drought-stricken farmers by offering up the chance to apply for grants.

The Red Cross has $11million worth of grants to give out to farmers, farming families or farming-dependent contractors in drought-affected areas of NSW, ACT or Queensland.

Grants can help people meet household expenses, such as food, vehicle maintenance, school expenses, electricity, gas or rates, telephone expenses and dental or medical expenses.