It is well worth giving GPS tracking of livestock a try, argues Dr Andiswa Finca, a junior researcher at the Agricultural Research Council. Finca is based in Makhanda and her area of expertise is the management of the communal rangelands in the Eastern Cape.
Globally, livestock are the largest users of land, since rangelands occupy about 54% of the earth’s surface, supporting billions of animals. Livestock have been providing crucial contributions to the nutrition and human wellbeing of billions of people since the time of its domestication.
As the largest users of land, 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 livestock use the land, where and what they are grazing on, in order to find ways to manage both livestock and the natural resources for optimal and sustainable productivity.
One of these methods involves livestock tracking in order to establish their grazing distribution, patterns and behaviour over the landscape as well as their density in certain parts of the rangeland.
In the past, animals tracking was either through very high frequency (VHF) radio devices and physically following the animals on foot and recording their position using a handheld GPS. However, both methods were not highly accurate and could only be done for short periods.
A new technology that allows for tracking of livestock movement using GPS trackers emerged in the early 1990s. Through the GPS tracking technology one is able to obtain data for livestock distribution over a certain landscape for extended periods of time. It even provides location data every minute, thereby allowing for better spatial accuracy and temporal frequency.
The use of GPS to track animals first focused on the study of the movement and behaviour of wild animals. However, this technology has now been refined to include a broader range of animal species including an increased use of GPS technology to study small and large livestock.
The use of GPS tracking technology can enable farmers to know areas that are most favoured by their livestock based on the number of times the animal visited that particular area over the period the GPS collars were on them. This can be followed up with a plant species composition assessment of those favoured areas to determine the area’s vulnerability to degradation.
Armed with this knowledge, one can almost predict the diet selection of their livestock, although knowing the actual quantities of the individual plant species consumed might be tricky.
Underutilised grazing areas discovered
Furthermore, the use of this technology coupled with veld condition assessment can enable farmers to determine if their current management strategies need to be reviewed. For instance, in one of our studies, communal farmers were not happy with the condition and health of their livestock and were blaming this on the quality of their communal grazing.
However, results from the GPS trackers showed that because of the unregulated continuous grazing practice as a result of not actively herding, there was underutilisation of the areas with good grazing. This was a clear indication of one area of their management practice that needed to be reviewed for the livestock condition and health to improve.
The GPS tracker technology can also play a vital role in finding ways to deal with disease outbreaks such as foot-and-mouth disease in areas where wildlife and livestock interactions are prevalent. For instance, the locations and rates of interspecies contact that may lead to transfer of the disease from the wild animals to cattle can be determined. This allows for informed planning on how to prevent or minimise the rate of infections. In other cases, one might be interested in determining the energy spent by different livestock to search for food and how these differ in the wet and dry seasons.
Foraging, which is the process by which animals obtain food, often takes up a lot of available time for the animal and spending more time on foraging means that time for other activities such as mating, resource defence and predator avoidance will be reduced because animals often cannot do two things at once.
The distance travelled by animals to find food can then be related to their performance and productivity which has economic implications. The same is true with access to water sources, if animals have to spend energy looking for water then this could affect their health and condition especially since most areas around water sources are degraded.
Owing to these benefits, whether one wants to determine the effectiveness of the current farming practices on farms or for research purposes, livestock GPS tracker technology is worth a try.