Pregnancy test for cattle using NASA tech shines at Longreach Innovation Expo

Agriculture is one of Queensland’s economic pillars, contributing just over $23 billion to the state’s economy and employing about 68,400 people. 

Queensland produces about 96 per cent of Australia’s sugar cane, 69 per cent of mangoes, 31 per cent of eggs, 65 per cent of sorghum and grain, and has 40 per cent of the nation’s cattle herd. 

According to a study by the Food and Agribusiness Growth Centre (FIAL), Queensland’s agricultural sector has the potential to quadruple its size by 2030 – if the state positions itself as a smart agricultural innovator. 

The study found the food and agribusiness opportunity in Queensland could be worth almost $43 billion by 2030 in value add through innovation, resulting in 176,000 jobs. 

This is a point underlined by the National Farmers Federation, which sees technology and innovation as important to achieving the goal of growing Australian agriculture to a $100 billion industry by 2030, 

It’s also something not lost on Western Queensland industry organisation GroWQ, which along with AgForce and with the support of the Future Drought Fund, held its second Innovation Expo in Longreach at the showgrounds in July. 

The expo drew 180 attendees, had 26 speakers, two discussion panels, and 30 trade displays. 

Speakers included Phil Tickle from Cibo Labs who talked about how satellites can assist producers work out feed capability, Sam Curr from My Footprint on a greenhouse gas calculator for farmers, Elise Dodd from the University of Queensland based Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation on tropical beef genomic breeding values, and Hamish Webb from Precision Pastures on soil carbon farming. 

It also included Dr Bronwyn Darlington, Founder and CEO from agritech start-up Agscent. 

A serial entrepreneur, Dr Darlington founded Agscent in 2017 and entered the world of breath diagnostic technology development. 

Dr Darlington’s family has a number of cattle and sheep properties in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. 

Being a farmer herself, she had first-hand experience with the problems and limitations with the current methods of pregnancy testing livestock. The current process of pregnancy testing involves a veterinarian or animal handler inserting their hand into the animal and feeling for the foetus. This can be a costly exercise and is dependent on the availability of a veterinarian. 

Dr Darlington thought there had to be a better way. 

“When I first started, I was in the yards pregtesting our cattle and working with our vet and realising that we’re doing this in a way that is the same as we’ve done since the pyramids,” she said. 

After first inventing a way to collect breath from cattle, Dr Darlington found that the NASA sensors used on the International Space Station to protect crew members by alerting them to the detection of harmful chemicals could also detect pregnancy related breath molecules. 

So she adapted the technology, incorporating it into her breath capture device – in effect creating a quick, cheap, non-invasive diagnostic tool that could ‘sniff out’ pregnancy in livestock. 

The hand-held device is held up to the animal’s nose for about 15 seconds to capture specific volatile organic compounds in its breath, using highly-sensitive nanosensors to identify specific bio-markers for pregnancy at various stages. 

The device is highly accurate and can detect insemination from as early as 18 days. 

Earlier this year, the Tropical North Queensland Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub funded a trial of the technology at Fletcherview Station, near Charters Towers. 

The purpose was to test the technology in North Queensland conditions on North Queensland cattle. 

The trial was a success, with the technology holding up well. 

Dr Darlington said reproductive management was one of the most important economic variables in livestock production. 

“Our tech enables producers to make more accurate decisions about what animals to keep or sell,” she said. 

Dr Darlington is hopeful that the testing device for cattle will be on the market in the next six to 12 months. 

She said Agscent will be a game changer for agribusiness in Queensland. 

“We are continuing to innovate and are currently undertaking further research and development of our core technology on broader application to pigs and sheep with the potential to apply what we can do to disease detection such as bovine respiratory disease.” 

Last updated 04 Sep, 2023
Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia (CC BY-ND 3.0) ( )