GPS collars for cows to eliminate need for fences

A new collar for another type of farming.

In the south of England, a herd of about 10 Sussex cows is trialling a collar that contains a GPS chip.

But the point isn’t to track where the cows are — the technology allows farmers to get rid of physical fences.

“The cow that’s inside that pasture wearing a collar will, when it meets that boundary, hear an audio and that audio will warn the animal that you are outside your grazing area, you need to return. And the animal learns that if I don’t return I get an electric pulse. So when I compare them to electrical fences that we’re all used to, it’s talk about animals using their ears to listen for the audio — ‘Where is my boundary?’ — instead of using their eyes to see where an electric fence is,” says Synne Foss Budal, General manager, Nofence UK.

Here’s a demo: once a virtual paddock is created, cows get an audio warning which intensifies as they get closer to the border.

If they don’t turn back, the collar sends an electric pulse, which Nofence says is comparable to an electric fence.

On average, Nofence says that 3 percent of animals receive an electric pulse after the audio warning.

The collar has a battery which is recharged thanks to built-in solar panels on each side of the device. It can be plugged into a socket when the sun exposure is too low, usually during the winter months.

The GPS chip can locate the animal in relation to the virtual paddock, and send that information to the farmer over a mobile network thanks to the SIM card integrated in the collar.

This trial is part of a regenerative farming project of the Knepp Estate, an area which used to be home to intensive farming.

The 3,500 acres of land are now in the process of rewilding in a bid to increase biodiversity.

The central-western part of the estate, where the cows are, is doing regenerative farming.

It means that the focus is to look after the soil and biodiversity, and rehabilitate it.

Russ Carrington, Farm manager at Knepp regenerative farms, has been trying the Nofence collars for two weeks to help him rotate the grazing areas of the animals. By doing so, soils get the chance to recover.

“Most of our cattle, we move on a daily basis using a system called mob grazing. But with the collars here, we’re doing much more gentle moving and maybe sort of once a week, depending on the grazing conditions, how much rainfall we’ve had, how much feed there is, the size of the area as they were getting them used to moving around on the basis of wearing these collars,” he says.

On the Nofence app, Carrington can monitor the live position of the cows, see how often they triggered the alarm and the electric pulses.

He can also draw new virtual paddocks on satellite images.

The cows are still getting used to the technology and are in a double-fenced area for now

“So I’ve put the animals into this fenced area for now, so they’ve got a physical boundary to contain them. And then overlaid on that, within the app, I’ve set the virtual boundary that they are then responding to, or the collars are responding to, to helping them learn where the boundaries actually are,” says Carrington,

The ecologist of the estate is already starting to see the benefits from the technology — one of them being the soft border the virtual paddocks create, giving space back to hedgerows.

“Behind me is a wonderful hedge that’s just starting to show signs of recovering. So before now, it’s been very hardly browsed back. But over time, with the Nofence collars, we’re starting to see this hedge starting to spill out into the into the field, billowing out and having a chance to breathe more easily. And over time, this is going to be much better for biodiversity, much better for for nature. That’s moving back into this area as a result of the regenerative farming,” says Penny Green.

Blackthorns are growing next to the hedge and which help make it more dense to welcome more biodiversity in the future. More flowers will mean more butterflies, hoverflies, moths and beetles, which in turn will attract more birds, especially nightingales, and even bats at night — a positive domino effect.

Carrington has noticed the return of the dung beetle, which consumes cow dung and improves soil quality.

Cow manure will also soon be used as a fertiliser for the two acres of land which will be converted for arable production.

For James Russell, senior vice president of the British Veterinary Association, the most important element of collars such as the Nofences is the audio warning.

And he’s eager to learn more about the impact of their use in the long run.

“When you start to put a GPS into it and the ability to move that quite frequently, I think there’s another question that we would need to answer about how animals might learn where those boundaries were and where to expect that visual audible cue and how regular changing of that would impact on their understanding of their environment,” says Russell.

The Nofence trial might be extended to the rest of the herd — about 60 more cows — but for now the temporary electric fencing is proving to be more cost effective than the new technology : £1,000 for a paddock which can house up to 100 animals, compared to the cost of £250 ($311) per Nofence collar, which doesn’t include an annual subscription of £25-£50 ($31-$62) per collar.

In the next few months, the regenerative farm aims to produce beef, eggs and vegetables for direct human consumption.