Data-driven decisions

Students use GIS to track cattle movements

May 16, 2018

Agriculture students are using GIS to analyse cattle movement in a new digital literacy booster program, currently being piloted in Australia and the United States.

When we think of the Global Positioning System (GPS), we might think of transport or mobile technology. In fact, out of all the things that can be achieved with GPS, tracking cattle may be the last one that comes to mind.

Yet, that’s exactly what GPS Cows is about; it’s an innovative and engaging research project, currently being piloted across eight Australian schools. The project involves tracking the movements of cattle (and in some places, goats and sheep) using a GPS to give students a chance to work with emerging agri-tech.

Dr Amy Cosby, Senior Research Officer, Agri-tech Education and Innovation from CQ University Australia has led the project and said she wanted to showcase the use of emerging technology in the agricultural industry, while creating something relevant and engaging for students to use. Dr Cosby hopes the project will not only attract students from an agricultural background, but will encourage STEM and geoscience students to develop a passion for agriculture and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Currently developed for students studying agriculture in high school, GPS Cows provides teachers with a ready-to-use unit, split into six sections, from data collection to data interpretation. Schools can obtain a GPS tracking collar for their cattle, which tracks the location of each animal throughout the day. Students then return to the classroom, where they clean and edit the raw data collected. A step-by-step guide is provided for the students, so even if a teacher lacks confidence with handling raw data, the tasks are made achievable and accessible, no matter their skill level.

Using Esri’s free GIS technology for schools, students import their data to ArcGIS Online and use a wide variety of analysis tools to understand and visualize the cattle’s behaviour, including preferred grazing and watering times, distance travelled from water troughs, and herd activity. This kind of data can then be used to increase the productivity, profitability and sustainability of a farming business, as farmers better understand how to manage their herds and the landscape.

“Initially, we didn’t know what platform school students could use to analyse their GPS Cows data. If we just stopped at Excel, it was not as visual, not as good as having a platform like ArcGIS Online. Esri Australia has been really good in helping make the instructional guide relevant and get the best out of ArcGIS Online,” said Dr Cosby. Typically, agriculture in schools is more commonly taught in regional areas, where students’ digital skills may not be as developed as their peers from inner-city schools. GPS Cows helps to bridge this divide and boost the digital literacy of students in regional, rural and remote areas.

As a teacher, I can also see the benefit of this project to students across Australia. Using industry-leading technology, students gain real life skills that they can take with them when they graduate. Even if they don’t choose a career in agriculture, the skills students develop in big data analysis can be used across nearly every industry today. Dr Cosby has said this was a key inspiration for the project.

Digital literacy is a big push in education – not just being able to use technology, but being able to critically think, analyse, and communicate using digital platforms.


Along with the Australian pilot program, Dr Colt Knight from the University of Maine, in the United States, is trialing the unit of work with the American Youth Organisation, 4-H. “ArcGIS has been great because it’s an international program; we’re able to share data and run a project across two countries,” Dr Cosby noted. The project allows students to connect with their peers internationally and help them understand the importance of global collaboration in agriculture.

GPS Cows launched at Beef Australia 2018 in Rockhampton and it is hoped the USA program will be promoted at the Future Farmers of America Convention later this year. At the end of the pilot program, the learning materials will be available free of charge to any Australian school (GPS tracking collars will have to be purchased separately). To participate in the GPS Cows project or read about the pilot schools and their journey, visit the GPS Cows website.

To request an ArcGIS account for your school, simply fill in this online form.