Managed grazing techniques are beneficial in livestock farming for a number of reasons. Regularly moving livestock cuts dependency on costly bought feed whilst also reducing overgrazing of pastures which would otherwise negatively impact long term plant health and carbon sequestration. Two of the biggest barriers farmers face when capitalising on managed grazing opportunities are access to skilled labour and fencing infrastructure. A Norwegian virtual fencing solution called ‘Nofence’ helps to resolve both of these problems and has proven successful in UK trials.
Nofence uses a combination of GPS, mobile data network, audio signals and solar power to work with animal behaviour and create a ‘virtual pasture’ that can be monitored and moved with a smartphone app.
“The app allows farmers to set virtual pasture boundaries that can be moved within a matter of a few seconds. Animals wearing Nofence collars can then be turned out into the area to graze with no physical fencing,” explains Synne Foss Budal, General Manager for Nofence UK
Automatic audio and electrical impulse herding
Lightweight Nofence collars have integrated solar panels to ensure long-lasting battery life throughout the grazing season. When an animal crosses the virtual Nofence boundary, a three-stage audio warning will sound. If the animal does not turn around when cued with the third stage of audio, it will receive an electric pulse equivalent to 18% of power from standard electrical fencing.
When a collar issues a pulse it immediately sends a pop-up notification to the farmer via the Nofence app with the location of the animal. If the animal continues to move in the wrong direction, it will receive a maximum of three pulses before it is classed as escaped. Again, the farmer is notified, and the location of the animal is tracked. When the animal crosses back through the boundary to return to the herd, it does not receive a pulse, with animals typically going back on their own in the rare case of an escape.
“Instead of cows using their sense of sight to see a physical fence to keep them in, they use their sense of hearing. And it has proven to be very effective,” continues Budal. “Through observations of herd behaviour on more than 30,000 head of livestock logging more than 75 million grazing hours, a typical farm will have just one pulse per every 30 audio cues. The app allows farmers to track the number and location of audio signals and pulses given to individual animals to allow them to adjust pasture design if required.”
No more fence management
Last year, Miss Budal helped a British beef farmer in Northumberland to convert his electric grazing system to Nofence. Prior to its rollout it was taking him five hours a day to move fences, but once his system was transitioned it only took him a few minutes a day to move his virtual fences and herd.
“Through the pilot project with Precision Grazing, we’ve seen farmers that were already good grassland managers take things a step further because time is no longer a constrain,” says Budal. “Across the board, we’ve seen a huge improvement in the quality of life of Nofence users due to the amount of time they are saving and the real-time data allowing them to make fast judgement calls.”
According to farm consultant James Daniel, Managing Director for Precision Grazing, virtual fencing is a game-changing tool that will help to enable wide-scale adoption of managed grazing techniques.
“Managed grazing increases the productivity of pastures and livestock by working with the plant’s natural growth pattern. If animals are left on a paddock for too long (set stocked), plants are ‘over grazed’ which leads to low productivity, bare soil, pasture degeneration and reduced forage production which ultimately leads to more expense for the farmer,” says Daniel.
“There are two ways to look at production increase potential. We can keep more animals in the same area which might allow an increase in stock or enable parts of the farm less suitable for grazing to be used for environmental benefit. Or we can reduce inputs, like nitrogen fertiliser or purchased feed, and maintain the same output with a lower variable cost.
“It isn’t unheard of for farmers to unlock the equivalent of an additional 30-50% area on their farm by increasing productivity,” continues Daniel. “There is no more cost-effective way to expand your land availability than improving your grazing management.”
The environmental benefits
From an environmental standpoint, managed grazing is a powerhouse, benefiting wildlife habitats, rainfall absorption, microbial diversity and carbon sequestration.
“Perennial plants like grasses and herbs are putting 40-50% of the energy they generate from photosynthesis into the soil. Some of that enables root growth and some of that is directly feeding the bacteria and fungi that live in the soil in exchange for nutrients. This process is fundamental to carbon sequestration,” adds Daniel. “Plants are most efficient at this when kept in their vegetative stage. The most effective and beneficial way to do this is with grazing animals that are being managed properly.”
The future of Nofence
“Nofence is constantly analysing data and data capturing opportunities to see what other functions can be integrated into the product. We also firmly believe that in order for it to serve farmers best, it must have their input, so we are regularly working with Nofence customers on what features will best benefit their businesses,” says Budal.
The company is working on several upcoming developments which includes an optional automatic paddock movement timer based on key data such as pasture cover, crop growth rate, soil type, weather conditions, livestock age and weight. Nofence is also exploring how animal activity data, such as grazing duration, resting and socialising can be used to improve animal health as early indicators of illness or serve as a heat detection tool.
Ultimately, Nofence is heading in the direction of being an on-demand pocket-sized grazing manager that will give users real-time advice based on their herd’s needs and unique environment and access to managed grazing education.
“Since its inception, the goal of Nofence has been to support farmers by giving them an effective way to improve business efficiency and animal welfare while supporting the environment. But ultimately, to improve their quality of life,” concludes Budal. “The future of grazing is here, and it is only going to continue to get better.”