Virtual fencing technology is used on more than 100,000 dairy cows in New Zealand and more than 10,000 in Tasmania, but current laws restrict its use in NSW.
However, that could all change.
In October, Member for Orange Philip Donato set the ball in motion, delivering a Notice of Motion to NSW Parliament to introduce the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Amendment (Virtual Stock Fencing) Bill 2023.
He said it was unfortunate existing animal welfare legislation would not permit the use of GPS collars.
The technology was already successfully in use in Queensland, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Tasmania and across the Tasman in New Zealand.
"Due to existing animal welfare legislation in NSW, which pre-dates this technology, NSW farmers have been left behind their interstate peers," Mr Donato said.
While Mr Donato's notice of motion is yet to progress, he had previously, in October 2022, called on then Minister for Agriculture Dugald Saunders to reform the legislation.
Mr Saunders, now the Nationals leader, said virtual fencing would be an asset to farmers, but the NSW Department of Primary Industries needed to do more work on the proof of concept and the legislation preventing the use of virtual fencing collars "was never a high priority because we had the floods on".
Mr Donato said the potential for this technology post floods, as producers tried to manage stock while fences were destroyed, was part of the reason he delivered the amendment to the bill.
NZ farmer, an early adopter
Dairy farmer Peter Morgan was keen to be involved with the early development of virtual fencing technology and was one of the first NZ farmers to deploy it on-farm.
Mr Morgan, from South Waikato and who was also a speaker at the Dairy Research Foundation 2023 Symposium last month in Camden, has used the Halter system for three years.
This product was developed in NZ specifically for dairy cows.
He was attracted to the technology for its suitability to pasture management, work conditions and economic benefits.
Mr Morgan operates a 240-hectare dairy farm at Pokuru, South Waikato, milking 520 cows.
Five towers across the four-kilometre length of the farm communicate with the stock and uses GPS to coordinate locations.
"This enables us to manage all animals in any way we need to, including fencing to any break shape and moving between breaks, paddocks or anywhere on the farm, including to the dairy for milking," he said.
The cows wear a solar-powered collar weighing 1.3 kilograms, tracks their movement and offers insight into their behaviour.
"We do this using a simple app that all staff on the farm have," Mr Morgan said.
"The collar and the app are continually being updated with tweaks and new features, particularly around pasture management."
Mr Morgan said the technology had been beneficial for their use of time, pasture utilisation, heat and animal health detection, and increased production and reproduction metrics.
"We have reduced 20 per cent of the hours worked, as break fencing and moving animals are eliminated," he said.
"More importantly, we are all more focused on the productive use of our time.
"Some of this is monitoring animal grazing behaviour, residuals and planning feed management.
"The animals have become very chilled as they manage themselves without us having to force them anywhere, yet they move as quickly as they ever did."
Australian research leads the way
The Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) is internationally recognised as a research leader on virtual fencing in dairy systems.
Researcher Megan Verdon joined TIA in 2016 and has led its virtual fencing project, which assesses the technology and its impact on managing intensive strip or rotational grazing livestock.
The project involved five sub-programs, each looking at the application of the technology in a different way.
"Grazing is a key feature of Tasmanian livestock production, so we led a program looking at how the technology could improve productivity in intensive grazing systems," Ms Verdon said.
Most of the research was conducted at the Tasmanian Dairy Research Facility (TDRF) on Tasmania's north-west coast, where the project has a herd of about 350 cows, predominantly Holstein, some Jersey and Jersey/Holstein.
Because much of the research has been the first of its kind in the world, researchers started with smaller sub-herds of 30 to 40 animals to gain a good understanding and scaled up once the best way of managing these new systems was established.
Ms Verdon said she was often contacted about the technology by dairy farmers in other states, particularly in Victoria, and researchers in other countries - especially Europe, NZ and the US.
"As far as I know, TIA is still the only place to have studied the use of virtual fencing on lactating dairy cows," Ms Verdon said.
"Our previous research used a virtual fencing technology designed for extensive beef systems and applied it to our intensive grazing systems.
"We found the animals quickly learned to respond to the technology, and it worked really well at keeping cows off a fresh strip of pasture, but the experiment was too short for us to conclusively comment on how quickly the animals adapt to the technology."
More recently, researchers have been working with Halter.
"This technology is exciting because of its ability to virtually fence and virtually herd cows," Ms Verdon said.
"We ran an experiment using the Halter technology earlier in 2023 and found cows took less than one day to learn the virtual fencing part of technology and were shifting to the dairy unassisted by stockpeople after four days with the technology."
Researchers are still analysing cow behaviour and welfare data and hope to provide an update in early 2024.
They are working with Tasmanian farmers using the technology to quantify potential changes in pasture production, animal health and productivity, and labour requirements in a commercial setting as part of the Tasmanian Government's Agriculture Development Funding.
"While research hasn't objectively assessed these potential benefits, anecdotal evidence from farmer experience suggests there could be improvements to reproduction, pasture utilisation, and staff satisfaction," Ms Verdon said.
"We believe the technology could also be used for improved environmental outcomes like keeping cows out of waterways, improving soil health, and reducing nitrogen fertiliser.
"We hope to quantify the impact of these potential changes in our project.
"This is a rapidly moving space, and the technology is always evolving, making it a very exciting product to be involved in."
Head of CSIRO's animal ethics unit and adjunct professor at the University of New England, Dr Caroline Lee, has also researched virtual fencing programs.
Dr Lee said commercial products like Gallagher's eShepherd were already on the market for use where permitted in Australia.
The eShepherd used a solar-powered, GPS-enabled livestock neckband, allowing producers to track, manage, fence, and move livestock across farms by remote commands.
"Studies show animals adjust easily after they have had the training," Dr Lee said.
"They respond well to the audio cues, and stress regulation is minimal once correctly trained.
"There is no evidence of the longer-term impacts of virtual fencing. It's still not known."