​Fitbit-style wearable motion sensors paint detailed picture of on-farm stock activity

Fitbits for your flock and movement monitors for milkers sounds the stuff of science fiction and fantasy but a three-year study suggests the breakthrough technology is close to reality – and financially viable.

Director of La Trobe University’s Centre for Technology Infusion Ani Desai said the new technology had the potential to transform farmers’ understanding of their livestock, which in turn would lead to significant economic benefit.

The research team has analysed movement data, similar to those from a Fitbit, on sheep and cattle on trial farms across Australia, taking it to an unprecedented level of detail and providing powerful insights into the health, wellbeing and behaviours of cattle and sheep.

This will help farmers understand and act on an individual animal’s behaviour, even on very large-scale farms.

North East sheep breeder and consultant Jason Trompf’s “Northgate Farm” Greta is one of the trial sites.

“We try a lot of different things and this is one of the most exciting technologies we’ve seen and has the ability to really fine-tune the management of animals in an environment with intensive information,” Dr Trompf said.

La Trobe’s Mark Jois said the sensors enabled farmers to identify ewes with strong maternal bonding.

“The new smart technology and resulting data has already proven highly successful in understanding the interaction between ewes and their offspring and we also now know how physically close together they are,” he said.

“By looking at distance and the interaction between the dam and lamb using the sensors, we can understand which mothers are more likely to look after their lambs and select them for breeding, therefore reducing lamb mortality.”

Dr Trompf said current methods used to link lamb and dam were time consuming and expensive, making this technology appealing.

“Ultimately it can be very cost competitive and also extremely accurate compared to alternative approaches,” he said.

 “Going forward once the systems are established you’ll be able to collect real time information and execute decisions as it’s happening.”

Northgate Park has self-replacing prime lamb enterprise with 33000 ewes.

The sensors painted a picture of stock activity in the paddock across 24 hours, such as their grazing, suckling and movement patterns.

For dairy farmers, the sensor data could help manage feed cost in dairy farms. 

Smart sensors on dairy cows enabled farmers to optimise the amount of grain fed to cows matching the intake of pasture by individual cows, improve pasture utilisation and reduce feed costs.

“It comes back to being able to effectively and efficiently operate what we control and being able to make the best use of resources we have in front of us. This technology is going to help us find problems and solutions or grow more quality feed,” said Markus Lang, a dairy farmer and LaTrobe alumnus.

“The technology will allow us to observe individual cows and assist them daily if that’s what we choose to do, which at the moment is not simply possible using traditional methods. I do think we will get to the stage where every animal on the farm will be carrying this type of technology.”