It is worth trying out GPS tracking of farm animals, argues Dr. Andiswa Finca, Young scientist at the Agricultural Research Council. Finca is based in Makhanda and her specialty is the management of communal pastures in the Eastern Cape.
Globally, livestock are the largest land users as pasture land takes up about 54% of the earth’s surface and is home to billions of animals. Since domestication, livestock have made vital contributions to the nutrition and well-being of billions of people.
As the largest land user, there is always a need to assess and monitor their impact on natural resources and ecosystems. Over the years, a number of methods have been developed and applied to determine how cattle use the land, where and what they graze on, in order to find ways to manage both cattle and natural resources for optimal and sustainable productivity .
One such method involves tracking livestock to determine their pasture distribution, patterns and behavior in the landscape, and their density in certain parts of the pastureland.
In the past, animals were tracked using either very high frequency (VHF) radios and animals were physically tracked on foot and their position recorded with a portable GPS. However, both methods were not very accurate and could only be performed for a short time.
Using GPS tracker technology on farm animals in communal grazing areas allows farmers and researchers to see usage patterns, like on this map with GPS tracker points. Photo: Delivered / Food for Mzansi
In the early 1990s, new technology emerged that made it possible to track livestock movements using GPS trackers. Thanks to GPS tracking technology, it is possible to obtain data on the distribution of livestock over a certain landscape over a longer period of time. It even provides location data every minute, thus enabling better spatial accuracy and temporal frequency.
The use of GPS to track animals initially focused on studying the movement and behavior of wild animals. However, this technology has now been refined to include a wider range of animal species, including increased use of GPS technology to study small and large farm animals.
The use of GPS tracking technology can allow farmers to identify areas that are most preferred by their livestock based on the number of visits the animal has made to that particular area during the period the GPS collars were worn. This can be continued with an assessment of the plant species composition of these beneficiary areas in order to determine the susceptibility of the area to degradation.
Armed with this knowledge, one can almost predict the food choices of their livestock, although it can be difficult to know the actual amounts of each plant species consumed.
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Unused pastures discovered
In addition, using this technology in conjunction with assessing the condition of the field can allow farmers to determine if their current management strategies need to be reviewed. In one of our studies, for example, local farmers were not satisfied with the condition and health of their livestock and attributed this to the quality of their local grazing.
However, the results of the GPS trackers showed that the areas with good grazing were not used sufficiently due to the unregulated continuous grazing practice due to inactive grazing. This was a clear indication of an area of their management practice that needed to be reviewed in order to improve the condition and health of the animals.
GPS tracker technology can also play an important role in finding ways to deal with disease outbreaks like foot and mouth disease in areas where wildlife and farm animal interactions are widespread. For example, the locations and rates of interspecies contact that can lead to the transmission of the disease from wild animals to cattle can be determined. This enables in-depth planning of how the infection rate can be prevented or minimized. In other cases one might be interested in determining the energy used by different farm animals foraging for food and how this differs in the rainy and dry seasons.
Foraging, the process by which animals ingest food, often takes a long time for the animal and cannot do two things at the same time.
The distance animals travel to forage can then be related to their performance and productivity, which has economic implications. The same goes for access to water sources. If animals have to expend energy looking for water, it could affect their health and condition, especially since most of the areas near water sources are degraded.
Because of these advantages, livestock GPS tracker technology is well worth a try, be it to determine the effectiveness of current farming practices on farms or for research purposes.
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