Imagine being able to control cattle yards and keep an eye on your farm from space. It sounds like science fiction, but that’s exactly what’s happening on a handful of cattle stations in Australia’s north.
The precision pastoral project reduces costs, time and labour, and has given the industry important backing when it comes to animal welfare and land management.
Newcastle Waters Station is the matriarch of the Barkly.
Founded in the 1860s, the station was once owned by Kerry Packer.
Anne Pedersen is the head stockman at Newcastle Waters’ commercial camp. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
On the 10,000-square-kilometre breeding property, they’re trialling precision farming. Using satellites, they keep track of their cattle and even control yard gates.
The technology uses a watering point to lure cattle into yards where they cross a weigh bridge.
Their ear tags — required by the national livestock identification system — are then scanned, giving an individual read on the live weight of every animal. This is then sent via satellite to a computer back at home.
Graziers can also use the technology to draft off or segregate cattle by automatically directing animals with heavier weights to a different pen.
Satellite technology fills in the gaps
Tim Driver has been developing the technology for the past decade.
“Generally in the industry, especially in the north, [graziers] only weigh cattle once or twice a year, so you’re missing a lot of info in between,” he said.
“That was the motivation to come up with a robot or automatic device.”
Satellite technology is also helping farmers monitor land conditions. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
The precision pastoral team have also recently extended the research to monitor land conditions.
Department of Primary Industries scientist Sally Leigo said producers can now marry cattle weights to the condition of the country by using the satellite technology to take images which track changes in growth, condition and grass diversity.
Cattle previously assessed using ‘the eye’
Newcastle Waters station manager Jak Andrews concedes land condition was usually assessed using the eye.
“Having grown up on stations … you make the assumption you can read the country,” he said.
“From the constant weighing and precision pastoral management system, we soon identified we are two [to] three weeks behind what we are visually seeing — not only from the satellite imagery from looking at pasture, but also from weights.
“Cattle will just start dropping. You don’t pick up on [that] with the eye.”
Station manager Jack Andrews says technology can pick up changes in stock faster than the eye can. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
Ms Leigo said that could be critical in raising alarm bells when cattle lose condition.
“That’s already really powerful for drought situations,” she said.
“If you’re getting early notice, potentially you can destock hopefully before everyone else floods the market.”
No robot replacements for humans just yet
Despite the leap in technology, Mr Andrews says humans are still a long way off being replaced by robots.
“[I] definitely think people are going to be integral to running cattle stations for the foreseeable future,” he said.
“Until there’s flying cars and robots doing everything, we are going to need people on the ground, but we have to embrace the opportunities that out there through technology.
“I think they can work side by side — technology and people on pastoral properties.”
Watch Kristy O’Brien’s story on Landline, Sunday at noon on ABC TV