A prototype of a buffalo processor. (Photo: NT Buffalo Industry Council)
A prototype of a buffalo processor. (Photo: NT Buffalo Industry Council)

Buffalo industry innovation for safer animal handling

THE successful trial of a newly designed buffalo handler is set to help remote contract mustering teams and indigenous land managers undertake ear-tag and horn-tipping procedures on freshly caught free range wild animals with greater safety and efficiency.

The prototype, part of a research collaboration between the NT Buffalo Industry Council and AgriFutures, was designed with the aim of designing and developing a portable handler for use in temporary livestock yards, which are assembled in very remote parts of the Top End to hold freshly caught wild buffalo.

The project targeted an engineering solution which would not only enhance animal welfare and human safety, but would also promote good biosecurity and traceability systems by ensuring animals are tagged before being trucked away.

NTBIC vice president Michael Swart, who has been actively involved in buffalo catching for many decades said the construction of the portable handler to ensure functionality in the field represented a breakthrough for the management of wild buffalo and would also have flow-on benefits for the control of unmanaged cattle herds, especially scrub bulls.

“We’re using an excavator, and where the bucket would usually be, we’ve attached a holding mechanism designed to secure a swamp buffalo for more efficient handling processes and the induction of a freshly caught animal. We can put a NLIS tag in the ear while the horns are immobilised, then cut the tip of the horns for safer transportation and perform any other treatments that might be necessary,” Mr Swart said.

Free range buffalo in Arnhem Land and surrounding areas are either mustered by helicopter into temporary yards or are caught with mechanical arms on the side of specially modified catching vehicles.

In recent years, close to 11,000 buffalo have been exported live to South East Asia annually, while the Rum Jungle abattoir near Darwin has achieved an average throughput of 6000 buffalo per year since it re-opened in 2020.

Mr Swart’s family business, Wildman River Stock Contractors, collaborated with another local business, Acacia Mechanical Contracting, to build the attachment which was debuted before Christmas at Woolner Station on a trial-run of swamp buffalo.

“The initial trial went extremely well. We were really happy with the how the concept stood-up to working out in the field and with freshly caught animals,” Mr Swart said.

“We gained some excellent insights to help us with the next tests in the next month or two. We’re finalising some of the set-up just to ensure the controls of the hydraulic holding mechanisms from the cabin seat are as responsive as possible and the functions of all the associated infrastructure are all streamlined.

“From what we achieved in our trials, we hope to be able to process one animal every one to two minutes with this system, which means that 100 animals could be handled in a morning before the heat of the day sets in. That sort of efficiency makes a huge difference for the animals and also the people processing them.”

In terms of design and construction, special attention has been given to balancing strength and durability of the steel fabrication with portability in loading and handling. The new system also doesn’t rely on walking animals up a narrow race and into a crush with a head restraint.

“We can move the animal through a wider yard space – the width of a push-up vehicle – and up to a specially built yard attachment, which allows the excavator arm to reach over to the animal from the side.

“We secure the animal by sliding the adjustable hydraulic forks to each animal’s particular horn shape, which is all done by the operator in the cab of the excavator with a full front-on view of the animal and the ability to adjust or release the hold at the push of a button.

“The hold on the animal’s horn can be made wider or narrower and then, with the press of another button, another two latches can lock the horns into place. Once you’ve locked on, the animal can’t move because we’re using a 13-tonne excavator.”

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