A solar-powered eartag that allows farmers to contain their cattle using invisible “virtual” electric fences is close to becoming a reality, with its inventor seeking $2.4 million in venture capital to move to the commercialisation phase.
The Ceres tag was promoted yesterday at an agricultural technology forum in Toowoomba by executive director David Smith, in a “Shark-Tank”-like environment at the Food Leaders Australia forum yesterday. It saw 10 start-ups pitching for more than $20m from agtech investors to advance their farm-focused innovations.
Mr Smith said the smart eartag, which will weigh about 30 grams and cost about $30 each, will provide farmers with information about each animal’s location, health and movements even when the owner is distant from the property.
The patented matchbox-sized ear tag, which will be suitable for sheep when mass production brings its price down to $10, also qualifies as the mandatory government-required electronic identification tag that must be inserted in the ear of every calf after birth to guarantee meat traceability at slaughter.
Mr Smith believes the Ceres tag — which can be programmed by a farmer drawing an imaginary “paddock” boundary on his ipad to deliver small electric ear-shocks to livestock, discouraging them from crossing the virtual fence line — has a potential market of 30 million cattle and 70 million sheep in Australia.
Its development already has the backing of CSIRO and industry R&D body Meat and Livestock Australia, but Mr Smith is looking for a commercial backer to buy 20 per cent of the business in return for a $2.4m capital injection, resulting in the first commercial trials and mass manufactured tags within two years.
Other agtech inventions highlighted at the Food Leaders Australia forum included a smart e-sensor fruit fly trap and app, Rapid Aim, which alerts fruitgrower users to approaching fruit fly infestations, and Agrihive, a financial management tool or “dashboard” program that converts key farm business and livestock figures and aspirations into real time cash and asset value assessments, allowing better and more informed decision-making.
Agtech investment is one of the boom areas of agriculture worldwide, with many investors preferring to financially back small tech start-ups with big potential in the supply chain, rather than buying farms and rural properties.
But Australia is lagging behind the US and market leader Israel in the development and adoption of new agricultural technologies and software programs to boost farm production and profitability, with just $4.6m invested privately across six agtech projects in 2014 compared to $176m in Canada and $2.1 billion in the US.
Andrew Kelly, a veterinarian and director of Australian and NZ investment firm BioPacific partners, identified six key agtech trends and disruptive technologies poised to change the face of global agriculture to the Food Leaders Australia forum.
Dr Kelly said drones and GPS-driven precision agriculture techniques on farms were becoming more practical and targeted, reducing risk and promoting better management decisions.
But gene editing and gene tinkering — such as developing cattle with no horns or altering plants such as safflower to produce industrial lubricant oil rather than edible food oils — will be where the real technological changes happen fastest, according to Dr Kelly.
Sue Neales was flown to Toowoomba to attend the 400M AgTech Investment Forum by the Food Leaders Australia group.