GPS tracking helps manage range livestock, ensure animal welfareGPS tracking helps manage range livestock, ensure animal welfare
Researchers in New Mexico and Australia collaborating on ways to help ranchers better manage livestock and improve animal welfare through work on real-time GPS tracking of livestock.
January 25, 2017
Ranchers in the western U.S. and in Australia face a major challenge: ensuring animal welfare on a substantial amount of rangeland.
It is difficult and expensive to manage livestock on vast rangeland. Derek Bailey, professor in the New Mexico State University department of animal and range sciences, is working to find ways to help these ranchers better manage their livestock and improve animal welfare.
His efforts include collaborating with researchers in Australia, where the rangeland is similar to that in New Mexico and other western states. Bailey will further his research at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton, Australia, with the help of a recently awarded Fulbright Senior Scholarship.
“On rangelands in New Mexico, in the western United States and in most of Australia, ranchers have extensive pastures on which they can’t see the livestock all the time,” Bailey said. “The cows have to free-roam out in the range, so you can’t watch them; it’s not like a dairy, where you see the cows every day. Because of that, you can’t always tell if the animals get sick or have trouble with parturition.”
His Fulbright scholarship to Australia from early February to late June will allow him to work with Mark Trotter, associate professor of precision agriculture at Central Queensland University, and others to identify methods to track cattle and sheep on rangeland. Specifically, Bailey will be learning in more detail about a type of global positioning system (GPS) tracking used to identify animal behaviors and to determine whether an animal needs assistance.
“One of the cool things about going to Australia is that they’re very close to having real-time or near real-time tracking of livestock,” Bailey said. “We’re trying to use technology to see if we can identify behaviors that would be indicative of welfare issues. We’re hoping to be able to see that, with their movement data from GPS tracking and perhaps other sensors.”
The GPS device would be affixed to a collar that would send a signal to a nearby tower, potentially up to 10 miles away from the animal. The data would be collected and transferred to the ranch headquarters. Ideally, the information would be sent via the internet to a smartphone application.
Bailey’s and Trotter’s research efforts are complementary. As director of New Mexico State’s 61,000-acre Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center located north of Las Cruces, N.M., Bailey has plenty of experience in rangeland cattle grazing behavior. In Australia, Trotter is knowledgeable in precision livestock agriculture, which is using technology to monitor cattle and sheep.
As another part of Bailey’s visit, he’ll ask Australian researchers to help analyze spatial data he has collected on the movement and behavior of cattle on rangeland. He hopes to find a way to improve the grazing distribution of livestock. Right now, too many animals forage near water. As a result, much of the forage area on higher land or on hills goes untouched.
“We’re trying to use genetic selection to improve grazing distribution to get cattle to graze up steeper hillsides to go further from water,” Bailey said. “Our ongoing research has been very encouraging so far; we just need to validate it. Our approach is to use genetic markers to predict where cattle will graze.”
For example, DNA from a blood sample may show that a certain animal would be more likely to climb hills or travel farther — something that Bailey has been exploring with University of California-Davis researchers.
“When we go to Australia, it gives me a chance to help work with others to be able to analyze and make more sense of this huge amount of tracking data that we’re collecting,” he said.
Bailey said he believes the combination of the real-time animal welfare tracking technology and the genetics of grazing distribution helped him receive the Fulbright scholarship.
“I think we’re really onto some cutting-edge research,” he said. “It’s a combination of high-tech solutions for real-life ranch problems both in Australia and here.”
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