As Australia’s population continues to increase, so does demand for food. As Woolworths expands its store footprint, the pressure to meet demand mostly falls on Australia’s farmers, who are tasked with scaling their businesses upwards while juggling rising labour, sustainability and traceability costs.
Looking to help beef and dairy farmers manage the shifting tides of livestock management is Agersens, a Victorian startup which is developing eShepherd, a virtual shepherding platform for livestock.
Through the Agersens app, farmers are able to in build a “virtual fence” around their property to manage their livestock. Each cattle is then equipped with a physical collar, which tracks the livestock’s movements and delivers an audio queue plus mild shock as they approach the edges of the virtual fence.
Farmers are then able to, based on seasonal, pasture and livestock number changes, easily change the location of the virtual fence simply by reshaping an existing fence through the app or create another. Virtual fences can then be allocated or ‘re-assigned’ to different cattle to cater for any changes, an action which can be completed at any time through the Agersens app.
For the startup’s founder, Ian Reilly, developing a product to help farmers easily adjust their fencing while automating the entire maintenance process meant tackling a number of “pain points” farmers experience, both locally and globally.
“Input costs are rising, labour is getting more expensive, and there’s a lot of pressure on sustainability and traceability across the entire process for farmers,” said Reilly.
On top of that, and serving as one of the largest issues, according to Reilly, is that once a farmer’s invested into building a – typically expensive – fence around their property, there’s a substantial cost attached to moving it elsewhere or adjusting it to deal with agricultural changes, such as overgrazing.
“Agersens decreases the risk of overgrazing and allows farmers to build up the soil health and nutrition of pasture production, all while improving environmental sustainability,” he said.
Reilly himself had seen a number of the issues with managing livestock firsthand, having grown up on a sheep and cattle farm in North East Victoria. Having the farm shut down due to increasing cost and demand, the entrepreneur soon became an engineer, where he worked on developing new technological products for thirty years.
“The problems we faced in the late 70s now apply to all farmers in the world, where they need to increase scale to increase profitability,” Reilly explained.
“While visiting Queensland, I spoke to a farmer who talked about his troubles managing stock. I though,t wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to automate the management?”
With the idea for the virtual fence, Reilly researched the concept and founded that Australia’s CSIRO had patented the technology, but hadn’t developed it into a product yet due to “technological hurdles”.
What did exist, however, was a software algorithm to train livestock to remain in a designated area through audio queues and electric stimulus, which would be integrated to design the Agersen’s collar technology.
“If you think about an animal approaching a physical electric fence, they see an electric wire and that’s a visual queue, then after they touch the wire a few times they realise they need to keep away from it,” said Reilly.
“In our case they receive an audio queue that they’re approaching an electric fence, and basically receive a mild electric stimulus…so they realise that when they hear that beep sound they have to back off.”
With the technology licensed, the startup’s development has been supported by $2 million in equity funding from both local and international investors including Gallagher, a global electric fence supplier brand. Reilly added that the startup also secured $1.2 million in non-dilutive funding from other sources such as grants.
One of the largest draws Agersens held to securing funding, according to Reilly, was around the technologies environmental benefits and ability to survive natural disasters such as floods and bushfires.
“[This means] keeping cattle out of rivers and waterways, keeping them out of national parks, or in places like the US and UK, keeping them inside national parks if they’ve been placed there,” he said.
“In Australia, keeping out of waterways is really important to stop livestock interfering with native wildlife, which is quite important for river health. The virtual fence is flood and fire proof, and won’t interfere with the wildlife at all.”
Looking to release the product later this year, Agersens will work through connecting a farmer’s phone or tablet to a central “base station” computer, which will act as the brain that distributes the commands to each animal’s collar.
To teach farmers how to use the technology, Reilly said the business will aim to send a technician to each customer’s location.
“They’ll put collars on all the livestock and all that stuff. You’d also have the farm mapped, whether that’s directly off Google Earth or not, and would be able to input that to the app,” he explained.
Alongside finishing development on the app, the business will also look to sort out its route to market and distribution model, with Reilly saying that Gallagher has already shown interest in serving as a distributer.
Image: Ian Reilly. Source: Western Magazine.