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Bring precision ag to the ranch

Photos courtesy of SDSU Cattle in field wearing the Vence collar
CATTLE COLLARS: The Vence collar on cattle at South Dakota State University’s Cottonwood Field Station helps track animal movements for improved grazing management.
New technologies such as GPS collars and virtual fencing help ranchers save money and time.

Mention “precision agriculture” and most often the focus is on cropping systems. But that’s changing as precision ag technology tools are emerging for use with livestock in rangeland settings as well, according to South Dakota State University Extension researchers Krista Ehlert and Jamie Brennan.

The duo is working with graduate students at SDSU’s Cottonwood Field Station near Philip, S.D., to evaluate new precision management tools and help beef producers learn if — and how — these technologies offer management efficiencies for their operations.

Ehlert is a range specialist and Brennan is a livestock grazing specialist with SDSU Extension. The assistant professors both work from SDSU’s West River Research and Extension Center based in Rapid City.

Brennan notes that precision ag tools offer an ability to better measure production parameters, such as animal weight, body temperature, volume of feed or water consumed, and even animal movement. With this data, producers have valuable information from which to make effective management decisions.

The SDSU research trials underway involve evaluating animals wearing collars with GPS, and audio and electrical shock capabilities to set virtual fence boundaries. Ehlert says these high-tech collars allow for tracking animal movements, as well as reducing the need for physical fencing to contain animals to certain grazing areas. She says both aspects offer opportunities for improved animal grazing management by producers.

The GPS tracking technology may allow producers to see from their phone or computer if an animal isn’t with the herd, or hasn’t moved in a day, indicating a need to check on the animal. The virtual fencing technology could allow creating three or four grazing zones to rotate through within one large pasture — without the economic or physical burden of building actual fence.

In total, Ehlert says precision technology for rangeland applications offers “a change from physical labor to cognitive labor,” and the future possibilities are exciting.

Opportunities with GPS

GPS trackers have been used for a few decades in the research realm both for livestock and wildlife, but often each individual tracker costs $1,500 to $2,000. Today, the cost of some GPS tracking collars retrofitted for livestock can be from $50 to $60, making this technology more attainable for research and ranch applications, according to Brennan.

Brennan says GPS devices store animal location at timed intervals, which allows for building a map showing their movements over the course of a day, a week, a month, etc.

Research has utilized GPS tracking devices to monitor relationships (based on location) between individual cows within a herd and to study the possible influence of livestock genetics on grazing behavior, including the distance cattle may travel from water and differences in average elevation use among other projects.

Now, as GPS tracking devices become less expensive and allow tracking in real time, ranchers have the ability to track some of these metrics within their own cow herd in the future, Brennan says.

Brennan points to the time-saving benefits of checking animals remotely, and knowing if an animal is outside the pasture or traveled away from the herd.

Ceres and Moovement are two companies that are currently developing GPS ear tags for livestock.

Virtual fencing

Similar to the shock collars and invisible fences that keep dogs in their yard, the same concept is being used as “virtual fencing” for cattle. Ehlert says with 1 mile of traditional barbed fence costing $8,000 to $10,000 or more, virtual fencing offers a significant opportunity to reduce capital and labor costs, and ultimately improve grazing management.

Presently, three companies have made virtual fencing products available commercially. These include e-Shepherd, Nofence and Vence, which is the most recently developed product by a San Diego startup in 2016.

the Vence Herd Manager software. TRACKABLE TECH: A screenshot shows the Vence Herd Manager software. Red lines indicate where the virtual fence boundaries have been placed, along with a heat map of grazing distribution. Red areas indicate where cattle have spent the most time.

Ehlert says all three products operate using similar technology. The animal wears a weighted collar with a small battery and audio pack, as well as two electrodes on the back of the collar. Once wearing the collar, if the animal comes within a set distance of the virtual fence boundary, an audio cue will emit from the collar. If the animal does not turn around from the audio cue and continues toward the boundary, a shock will then be sent through the two electrodes.

Ehlert says animals typically learn quickly to turn around and move away from the virtual boundary to avoid the audio cue or shock. She suggests applications of virtual fencing technology include:

  • protecting an area with young trees from being grazed
  • excluding riparian areas or dugouts with bad water from being grazed
  • creating grazing zones within a larger pasture to successfully rotationally graze the pasture

Presently, the cost for virtual fence technology from Vence includes $35 to rent a collar for one year, plus $10 for the battery. A collar can be moved to different animals within the rental period. Additionally, a $12,500 base station tower is needed to emit the virtual fence boundary signal that corresponds with the collars. The range for a tower is about 6 miles, and Vence recommends at least two of portable towers for an operation.

The portable base stations for the Vence system HOME BASE: The portable base stations for the Vence system operates off of solar power and cellular.

Ehlert and Brennan are continuing research with both the GPS and virtual fencing components using livestock at the Cottonwood Research Station. More information on their findings will be available in future months.

Cattle producers go virtual with fencing

At Jorgensen Land & Cattle near Ideal, S.D., virtual fencing has been successfully used during the 2020 and 2021 grazing seasons. As a result, Nick Jorgensen says he’s convinced that virtual fencing has “real life” applications.

Using technology created by San Diego-based company Vence, and collaborating with SDSU’s Krista Ehlert, the Jorgensens have outfitted replacement heifers with the electronic collars and trained them to respect the virtual fence boundaries that are emitted by portable base station towers.

When the heifers come close to a pre-set virtual boundary, the collar emits an audio signal. Heifers quickly learn that when they turn around and move away from the area, the audio signal stops. If an animal ignores the audio signal and continues to move forward, the collar delivers a shock similar to what an animal feels if it touches an electric fence.

Jorgensen reports that typically about 90% of animals are trained from the audio signal, while only about 10% of animals move into the shock zone. “It’s very low-stress, and the shock animals may receive is not as strong as an electric fence.”

Once a group of animals has been trained to the audio and shock system, the virtual fence boundary can be moved to various locations, and the majority of animals typically respect the invisible boundary, Jorgensen reports. He says 85% to 87% of their heifers with Vence collars stayed contained with the virtual fence.

Of this, he says, “You still may need a perimeter fence. But within that area, the virtual fence allows you to manage grazing very efficiently. As an example, the Jorgensens have used the virtual fence to divide a 70-acre field of wheat stubble into three paddocks, to be rotationally grazed with 250 Angus heifers wearing Vence collars.

Jorgensen says he is excited about the opportunity virtual fence offers to integrate livestock onto cropland to achieve extra grazing usage and soil health benefits from livestock urine, manure and hoof action.

Looking ahead, Jorgensen says the biggest challenge with virtual fence is keeping the collars appropriately on the animal’s neck. He explains that often the collar wants to flip outward, which prevents the electronic nodes from being able to give the shock cue to animals if they move too close to the pre-set boundary. Jorgensen states, “The technology works. Now, it’s just figuring out how to keep the collars on.”

The Jorgensens have been working with Vence to develop solutions. One adjustment has been using a chain, which is easier to put on instead of the initial canvas strap.

To date, Jorgensen’s have invested in four base stations, and calculate they would need 11 to cover their entire ranch. Also, they’ve made their towers portable to get extra use out of them.

Using the collars on different animals during the year can help with the economics, such as using collars on cows or heifers for grazing May through September, and then placing the collars on bulls while grazing from October through December.

Gordon writes from Whitewood, S.D.
TAGS: Technology
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