Fenceless farming tech to collar pasture, profit.

Momentum is building for the Aussie company driving commercialisation of CSIRO’s virtual boundary technology.

AgTech startup Agersens has an initial strategic investor for its GPS-controlled cattle collar, dubbed eShepherd, and secured a spot at the National Farmers Federation’s SproutEx development accelerator in Melbourne, while a range of company and industry farm trials are in progress.

The pitch? “To provide a tool for farmers to automate grazing of livestock so they can increase productivity and profitability,” says Agersens founder and managing director Ian Reilly.

The product, patented from CSIRO’s experimental designs, is billed as a training program that habituates livestock to virtual boundaries – guided by audio cues and electrical pulse – operated through a smartphone, the collars on the animals are linked to a hub at an internet-connected homestead.

Mr Reilly, an engineer and product designer who grew up on a sheep and cattle farm in Victoria, spent 30 years working in aerospace, defence and medical sectors before he twigged to the idea of a cattle collar when he visited his dad’s Queensland property.

Animal welfare, environmental benefits and the bottom line all roll in to the Agersens package, he said.

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Fenceless paddocks are the cheapest, best way to protect sensitive riverbanks and watercourses and the collars “can automate alerts to sick animals” as well as to redraw fence lines immediately, and for free.

Mr Reilly aims to get Agersens on the market next year. Next week, he will be at the investor pitchfest Tech23 in Sydney.

Dairy Australia secured $2.6 million government funding to trial the product for four years in conjunction with Rural Development Corporations.

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Pig poo power plant set to boost jobs and energy in northern Victoria

An ambitious plan to turn pig poo and food scraps into power is being developed in northern Victoria.

The power plant, glasshouse and piggery expansion, called Waranga Green Energy, will be built at Stanhope, west of Shepparton. For over five years, it has been the dream of piggery owner John Bourke.

The project is set to transform the quiet town of Stanhope, providing an additional 30 jobs and estimated $10 million per year for the local economy. The aim of the property is to develop a closed system for power and waste on the farm.

Pig poo and straw from the intensive farming environment will be used, along with other food waste, to create power in an anaerobic digester plant to be built nearby. The plant will be used to power the piggery and provide heat to an expanded and upgraded farm.

Next to the power plant, a 4.6-hectare greenhouse will be built, using power and heat to grow leafy green vegetables, year round, to supply gaps in the seasonal markets.

The goal is to sell up to 20 million lettuces and over 20,000 pigs per year, along with liquid and solid fertiliser (a bi-product from the power plant) to the farm’s customers.

The price tag for the Waranga Green Energy and farm project is around $75million which Mr Bourke is planning to raise through superannuation and foreign investment.

He has hired a company to raise the capital needed.

An additional $1 million grant has been awarded by the Victorian State Government.

Mr Bourke is confident he will get the investment dollars he needs because of the high return from the project.

Construction is set to begin in early 2017 with Mr Bourke expecting the farm to be fully operational and sending food to market within the year.

Pigs on straw beds at a piggery at Stanhope

Pigs on straw beds at a piggery at Stanhope

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SA Aboriginal community turns to saltbush farming to create remote jobs

The Aboriginal community of Scotdesco on South Australia’s west coast, has pinned its hopes on farming to overcome shockingly high levels of unemployment.

Robert Larking’s office spans 25,000 acres on the edge of the Nullarbor, where he manages the tiny Aboriginal community.

He, and the community’s residents are embarking on an ambitious project to commercially sell saltbush, a hardy native, in a bid to create jobs in the remote area. To create employment, Mr Larking and the community is pinning its hopes on saltbush.

“Our process now is to go into a different stage where we can grow our saltbush, and feed our lamb saltbush and hit a different market,” he said.

The community has planted hundreds of saltbush plants, to be harvested commercially in three years’ time. A nursery has also been built where residents tend the seedlings until they are ready to go in the ground. There are plans to eventually build a mill in nearby Ceduna, where the plants can be turned into pellets for stock feed or flour for human consumption.

The community tends to saltbush seedlings until they are ready to be planted.

The community tends to saltbush seedlings until they are ready to be planted.

Saltbush is gluten free and high in protein.

“That’s when it’s really all going to come together, but we’ll be planting our paddocks for the next three years with other plants, so, increasing our stock.

While this project is only just getting off the ground, those involved have big plans. The hope is to plant about 10,000 hectares of saltbush in the region with the help of other Indigenous communities.

Ms Miller said it was important that job opportunities were available in remote areas.

Local Indigenous groups know this land, in the remote west of South Australia, inside out. That is why Mr Larking started looking at new ways the community could use their knowledge of the country to become self-sustainable.

He turned to farming, and the property runs sheep that are sold to market.

“We first started off with only 600 ewes and about 20 rams. After three years now we’ve got over 3,000 ewes and about 60 rams, even a bit more now, and we’re selling easy over 1,000 lambs a year,” he said.

Mr Larking said the community turned to saltbush to build on that success.

“We’re a small community and I sort of feel like there’s just a one-man-band, myself, but you know if I had more staff … we could move on very quickly to brighter and better things,” he said.

“Thinking about it, I can sell my meat to Woolies or Coles or something like that, a private buyer, instead of selling it straight to the market.”

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Agriculture worth half a billion dollars to Tablelands

Agriculture contributed more than half a billion dollars to the economy of the Tablelands in far north Queensland in 2015, a new agriculture profile has revealed.

The profile puts the combined value of the region’s 42 large agricultural industries at $552 million.

Agriculture has posted a 30 per cent increase in value over the last four years, despite the impact of prolonged drought in some parts of the region.

Agriculture Minister Leanne Donaldson said the impressive growth demonstrated the strength of the local industry and its importance to the Tablelands.

 Matt and Jess Fealy, Blue Sky Produce, Mareeba, are among the large number of avocado growers who make up the industry which contributed $83 million to the region's economy in 2015.

Matt and Jess Fealy, Blue Sky Produce, Mareeba, are among the large number of avocado growers who make up the industry which contributed $83 million to the region’s economy in 2015.

Ms Donaldson used a recent trade mission overseas to promote the region’s produce.

“While recently on a trade mission to Jakarta, Hong Kong and Beijing I was able to meet directly with industry and government officials and to profile Queensland produce to industry leaders, Asian importers and distributors,” Ms Donaldson said.

Dr Geoff Dickinson, a Mareeba-based senior horticulturist with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF), said the department had just updated the region’s agriculture profile for the first time since 2011.

“The banana industry is the most valuable to the Tablelands, worth $91 million,” Mr Dickinson said.

“Avocado is second with a value of $83 million. Other notable industries are mango ($52 million), sugar cane ($39 million), beef cattle ($35 million), dairy cattle ($34 million) and poultry ($30 million), he said.

Blueberries, a new agricultural industry on the Tablelands, are now worth $11 million. Sweet potatoes, an old industry making a comeback are now worth $5 million.

Both these industries are highly labour intensive and have brought many new seasonal jobs to the region, Dr Dickinson said.

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Helicopter drone used in the war against mites.

A helicopter-style drone is being used in the war against mites that suck the goodness out of growing crops. Aerobugs, a business run by former strawberry grower Nathan Roy, has taken off after Mr Roy invented and patented a system to air drop predatory mites into the fields.

The predatory mites attack the chemically resistant two-spotted mites, which can decimate strawberry crops, before self-destructing.

“For 25 years I grew strawberries with my family, and two years ago we decided we couldn’t expand any further with our farm, so we decided to hop out of strawberries,” Mr Roy said.

“My brother has gone into turf and I’ve gone into spreading beneficial insects by drone.

The drone has been used to drop beneficial bugs on more than half of Queensland's winter strawberry crops.

The drone has been used to drop beneficial bugs on more than half of Queensland’s winter strawberry crops.

Mr Roy sources the predatory mites from the Bugs for Bugs insectary at Donnybrook, north of Brisbane.

He then sets the drone up and mixes the insects, pours them into a spreader system he has made, then takes off and spreads them all over the fields.

Mr Roy works closely with Paul Jones from Bugs for Bugs, the company that breeds the predatory mites.

“The logistics of getting these bugs out, particularly in large areas can be quite difficult,” Mr Jones said.

“Usually a grower would employ workers to put them out by hand, and it can be quite challenging instructing people how to do it.

“Sometimes they might leave the product out in the sun and kill the poor little critters.

“It’s not like a chemical where you mix it in a tank and you spray it out in the field.

“We’ve been using the drone for the last two years, and in the last 12 months it’s really been taken up commercially — the results have been excellent.”

Mr Roy said the cost of using the drone was comparative to other methods.

“Good predator establishment in the fields has been a positive outcome from this year’s trials,” he said.

“We might be a little bit dearer, but instead of sporadic spotting over the strawberry field, we’re covering every square metre of the field, so we’re getting a much more even spread.”

Mr Roy said he had driven about 150,000 kilometres in the past 18 months as business had boomed.

“I’ve done half the winter crop for Queensland’s strawberry industry, probably half of Queensland’s summer strawberry crop up in Stanthorpe, and quite a few of the strawberry growers in Adelaide,” he said.

“We’ve also ventured off into tomatoes in the Gatton area, and then we’ve done trials in other types of industries like bananas, watermelons and pumpkins.”

Mr Roy has big plans for expansion.

“I’m hoping to have a lot of crafts established all over Australia, so I can have people trained up to fly the drones for the farms, or I’ll just fly in to do them myself,” he said.

“Coming from a farming background, I understand what it’s like to be under those stresses, so I’ve made something that I can go out and help farmers trying to streamline their businesses,” he said.

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