Waiting for the cows to come home18 May 2021

There’s many a weary farmer out there wishing their cows could get themselves from the paddock to the milking shed.

While technology has improved many aspects of dairying, there is still plenty of hard graft involved and farmers continue to work extremely long hours.

The physical challenges and endless repetition of dairy farming mean some farmers can’t or won’t continue farming later in life. But a new technology promises to help change that by revolutionising the way dairy farmers move their herds.

Three years ago, Craig Piggott, the founder of Halter, began developing a remote cow management system that could keep cows behind virtual GPS-defined “fences” and prompt them to move between paddocks, breaks and the milking shed at scheduled times.

Halter’s GPS collars use sound and vibration which cows learn to interpret as 'keep moving' or 'stop moving'. A small piece of tech inside the collar sits behind the cow’s ears creating these cues which train the cows to stay within a fence-less boundary or walk to the milking shed.

Cows can have scheduled shifts programmed into their collars, including when to leave the paddock through an invisible gate and head up to the shed for milking or a new break, without the need for a dog or motorbike.

The vibration is also used as a positive reinforcement when a cow is facing the right direction or doing the right thing, similar to the way a rider will squeeze a horse to signal the desired behaviour.

The use of GPS technology means farmers can benefit from virtual fencing which results in more reliable and sustainable use of land.

Cues are given to direct the cow in the direction it needs to move. As a cow moves closer to a boundary, the collars are assessing direction and other inputs. If a cow is moving towards a virtual fence, she will hear a sound cue to stop. Cows learn habits and automatic responses, like humans, and because cows are herd animals, if some of them are doing the right thing, the rest are likely to follow.

The collars are also able to detect behaviours unique to a specific cow, for example, if she isn’t eating as much or she is sitting down more often, it can alert the farmer to check on her.

If there is a flood or higher river levels, farmers can also restrict their herd’s access to these areas. This prevents contaminated runoff into fresh waterways.

But for time-poor farmers, these innovative collars are eliminating one of the most time-consuming jobs on a dairy farm, sitting behind a mob nudging them to the shed for milking twice-a-day.

A farmer can now pick the kids up from school in the afternoon and remotely activate the collars to send the cows to the shed so they are there when the farmer arrives back from school.

Similarly, farmers with more than one herd to milk can activate the second herd to head to the milking shed while he or she is still milking the first, saving round-up time and unnecessary standing around for the cows once they’re at the shed.

Sources: Farming with invisible fences, Farmers Weekly, 19 April 2021 Wallace-Tidd, Makayla. Halter: Bringing humans and cows closer through technology. MOTAT, 10 March 2021 Farmers Weekly/Agribusiness – 8 October 2020