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Researchers from USDA, OSU working to see how well virtual fencing can work on federal allotments.

Heather Smith Thomas

March 26, 2021

7 Min Read
A cow stands near a stream on Barthelmess Ranch in Montana. Researchers are testing the use of GPS-enabled virtual fencing to control cattle on federal allotments.Barthelmess Ranch

To manage livestock, we need ways to keep them in desired areas.  Traditionally, herding or fencing (permanent or portable) were the only options.  Now there is virtual fencing--invisible boundaries that can be moved using computer or smart phone, utilizing GPS coordinates. 

Cattle wear GPS collars and are trained to respect the boundaries. Towers at strategic locations provide communication to and from the collars on the cows and the internet.  As an animal approaches the virtual boundary, the collar emits a warning beep.  If the animal continues to approach, it receives a mild electric shock.  Cattle learn to turn away from the “fence” to avoid the shock.

Research in Oregon

Chad Boyd, a research leader for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Burns, Ore., is part of a team of researchers from ARS and Oregon State University working with a project to see how virtual fencing might be beneficial on federal allotments. 

“In southeast Oregon it’s not uncommon to have range pastures of 10,000 acres or larger, with very few cross-fences,” he says.

In recent years there have been more wildfires, and when public rangeland burns, the burned area is typically off-limits to grazing for several years to allow it to recover. 

“If 20% of a 10,000-acre pasture burns, for instance, you must either build a fence to exclude cattle from that portion or take non-use of the whole pasture,” he says. Being unable to use the pasture is devastating to ranchers who depend on it for summer grazing.

It’s also difficult to try to put a fence on public land; there are many processes to go through that impact the timeline, and sometimes the terrain is also challenging.

“We wondered if virtual fencing might be a management alternative to keep cattle out of the burned areas, enabling ranchers to put cattle back into areas that didn’t burn. Our project had two goals—to find out if virtual fencing was for real, and to actually apply it to a problem. We did it first on a small scale, in case it didn’t work,” says Boyd.

“Our research range in southeastern Oregon (Northern Great Basin Experimental Range) is set up like a working ranch, but the cattle are from Oregon State University. We used 6 five-acre adjacent pastures. In the fall we did a prescribed burn on 30% of each pasture, then started our trial the next year at the beginning of growing season, to see if we could keep cattle out of those burned portions with virtual fencing,” he says.

Three of the six pastures were used as controls. “The animals in those pastures were wearing collars (just like the animals in the other pastures) but would not get a shock or beep to alert them to a virtual fence,” he says. Collars on those cattle were just so the GPS could track their movements—to know if they went into the burned areas.

“In the other three pastures we turned on a virtual fence at the boundary between the burned and unburned areas, creating a zone 30 yards wide. In the first 20 yards, the cattle get a beep from their collar. If they keep going, closer to the burned area, they get a mild shock,” he explains. 

Listen for the beep

The cattle had already learned to pay attention to the beep—and not get a shock. “We trained them for 5 days in a dry-lot,” he says. “If they got close to the fence they’d hear the beeping, and if they came closer they’d get the shock. The advantage to training them in a small pen is that they can see an actual boundary (with the virtual fence close to a real fence).” 

They could correlate the beep and the shock with a true boundary if they got too close.  Once they respected the virtual fence, they were put in the experimental pastures.

“In the three pastures with virtual fences, only one had any grazing in the burned area; the collar on one cow got inverted (shock contacts pointed outward) so the shock wasn’t working,” Boyd says.  In the control pastures, where there was no virtual fence to keep them out of the burn, cattle preferred those areas with young regrowth.

Virtual fencing could be an option for keeping cattle out of burned areas and not impede wildlife with an actual fence. 

“There is a cost to utilize virtual fence,” he says. “We paid $40 per collar to use them.  With the company we work with, you lease collars rather than buy them. The technology is evolving so fast that if you spend a lot of money purchasing collars, those might be obsolete in a year or so.”

Leasing collars annually, you have the newest and most workable collars and virtual fence technology. There is also a cost for the base stations. 

“Right now a solar-powered base station from the company we work with runs about $10,000,” Boyd says. “For small applications one base station may be adequate, but for larger areas, or more complex topography, additional stations may be needed.

“This summer we want to do a bigger project, grazing a 200-yard-wide fuel break about 1¾ miles around a pasture, using virtual fence, using cow/calf pairs. Our first trial was with dry cows, to make it simple,” he says.

The company doesn’t make a collar small enough for calves, so hopefully they will stay with their mothers. The technical specialist is creating a flexible boundary. 

“If a calf goes through the virtual fence and mom follows (in spite of the shock, because she’s a good mom) the collars are programmed to create a bigger boundary. Then when she comes back to the herd, through the original boundary with her calf (and she won’t get a shock coming back), the original virtual fence turns on again,” he explains.

Other research projects

Todd Parker, Director of Product and Programs at Vence (a virtual fence company started in 2016) says there are currently research projects at various universities, looking at practical ways to utilize virtual fencing. 

“Besides the project in Oregon, we have research going on with Oklahoma State University, University of Nevada-Reno and in the near future with University of Arizona, and South Dakota State University,” says Parker. 

Some of these projects are working with ranchers, using virtual fencing in a variety of situations and terrain.

“A project on the Cottonwood Ranch in Nevada is on a combination of private land and grazing allotments on BLM and Forest Service. This is a great opportunity to work with the federal agencies,” he says.

Multiple use constraints on public land, wildlife concerns, riparian habitat, etc. can be addressed with virtual fencing, rather than having to build actual fences. The value there is more subtle--harder to put a dollar amount on it--but sometimes working with the federal agency or wildlife interests is helpful because it enhances their goals, and they may want to participate in cost sharing for virtual fencing.

“A big customer is Jorgensen Land and Cattle in South Dakota. We’ve been working with them on an experimental basis and now they are getting 500 collars for some of their cattle this spring and summer. We also have new customers in Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and the Dakotas, and talking to additional interested ranchers in Montana,” says Parker.

“We’ve been doing virtual fencing in Montana on the Barthelmess ranch, and also talked with one of their neighbors who has property along the Missouri River. He has 60,000 acres he can’t fence because of the terrain. He runs cattle on that entire property without being able to rotationally graze, so he is interested in anything we can do to help him cross-fence, and manage the grazing.” 

There is also a growing interest in virtual fencing in Australia. 

“We’re working with some of the larger cattle stations--huge properties with tens of thousands of animals. We have one customer in Queensland who is deploying 2000 collars. They have gone from a 200-animal trial to a 2000-animal trial on their property,” says Parker.

[Heather Thomas writes from Salmon, Idaho]

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