Sitting on his back verandah with mobile phone in hand, Calum Carruth checks his tank levels to see how much water the cattle and goats have used across his 126,000-hectare property.
It is in stark contrast to bumping over dusty station tracks in the sweltering heat to physically check tanks and troughs.
One tank needs filling, he swipes right on his phone and switches on a diesel powered pump, which is located 20 kilometres away from the station homestead.
This technology and connectivity is the new frontier in operating large and remote pastoral stations in Australia.
Saving money and hot dusty trough runs
Mr Carruth and his wife, Belinda, own Murchison House Station, one of the oldest pastoral stations in Western Australia.
But their focus is on the future, and using new technology to create operational connectivity networks and generate management data from across the property.
In two years, they’ve developed a system that allows remote monitoring and reporting of tank levels and water flows and remote activation of water pumping systems.
Mr Carruth said the system cost about $130,000 to install, but in just one summer it had saved him $30,000 in expenses.
“It’s hard on vehicles, it’s hard on staff and it exposes people to risk because it’s a long way and often very, very hot, and it would need to be done three times a week in summer as a minimum.
“We’re currently doing it once a fortnight to clean troughs and physically check that the signals that we’re getting from our installations are exactly what they’re saying.”
Simple to set up technology
The system was developed by AgTech provider Origo.farm and backed by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), however Mr Carruth said most components were off the shelf.
Their goal was to create a whole-of-property connectivity solution that could be rolled out across other remote properties in remote locations.
Mr Carruth said the set-up was relatively simple. The receiving tower sits on a limestone escarpment, which was a coral reef 150 million years ago.
“The first thing we did was install wi-fi to the homestead, so we’ve got a copper to the node service [in Kalbarri] at a friend’s house, and we basically installed another node for the NBN at their house,” he said.
“Then there’s a point-to-point wi-fi network up the backbone of the station, and coming out of that are 900 megahertz carrier signals to all of our base stations and tank installations and repeaters.”
The 900MHz meshing radio system was found to be the most cost-effective and reliable system.
Each of Murchison House’s 12 watering points have a repurposed windmill tower to hold an antenna.
While the Carruths are using the system for water monitoring, it also has potential to be expanded to allow internet access and online messaging across the property, electronic gate operation, and cameras.
They are also interested in monitoring vegetation growth.
The new pioneers of remote cattle country
MLA’s general manager of research, development and innovation, Sean Starling, said there were several pioneers emerging in the connectivity space, proving that the outback no longer needed to mean ‘out of reach’.
“There are many others out there working in this area, doing their own thing but in a different way.
“I think the more the Calums [from Murchison House Station] of this world get out there and show that technically this is do-able, you’ll also be able to demonstrate the true value proposition [of this technology].”
Mr Starling said the cost of connectivity was reducing and those who took the plunge often found its true value to be far greater than first expected.
“But all of the sudden you’re also getting some animal welfare benefits, less travel, some after-hours social benefits around having Netflix and being able to attract additional employees into your business.
“So I think once we start to establish some of those value propositions then this becomes a completely different commercial proposition for our producers.”
Gina Rinehart’s large-scale investment
One company that has invested heavily in this space is Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting.
With stations sprawled across northern Australia, the company has brought mining technology to the cattle industry, and according to some has spent an “eye-watering amount of money” doing so.
Hancock’s spending on walk-over-weigh systems for cattle is impressive, but its investment and rollout of a digitalised UHF system and point-to-point wi-fi is the talk of the north.
Speaking at a developing the north conference, Gina Rinehart explained the project.
“The digitalised UHF devices enable private and group phone calls, text messages, brief emails, and can transmit emergency notices so emergencies can be responded to quickly throughout the station, improving staff safety and enabling greater knowledge and efficiency for managers.
“The digitalised devices mean that a station manager inspecting cattle at the far-most point of say Ruby Plains Station [in the Kimberley] can, in a few seconds, speak directly to his station staff or Kidman’s head office, which is over 2,500 kilometres away, or a customer in Tokyo.”