There’s no getting around one reality of cattle ranching in the West: you need a lot of fence. That said, it is possible for cattle to get around (and under) that fence.
Miles and miles of fencing — expensive to install, expensive to maintain – has long been the only answer. As Kansas rancher Daniel Mushrush told the Kansas News Service: “Fencing is right up there with death and taxes.”
A New Way To Control the Herd
These days Mushrush is testing a new way of controlling his herd: virtual fences. The rancher took the technological leap this year as part of a project coordinated by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which also is testing the technology on cattle ranches in Colorado and New Mexico. William Burnidge, Deputy Director of TNC’s Regenerative Grazing Lands strategy, said recently that using technology to solve this age-old cattle ranching challenge is a logical next step to direct herds to the best grazing land while also promoting conservation.
“What has worked in many places for ranching over the past 30 years is really stressed in the current context by drought, climate change, market fluctuations, and changing public attitudes toward land use and diet,” Burnidge said. “So we need new tools and new models for how we can continue to have large-scale livestock operations in the United States that take care of the people that operate them, take care of the land, wildlife, and contribute to surrounding communities.”
Mushrush Red Angus Ranch includes a grazing lease on the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills, the largest remaining portion of unplowed tallgrass prairie in the country. The Preserve also provides habitat for the greater prairie chicken, whose population is declining. The rancher understands how using virtual fences can better protect the prairie, but he also has bills to pay.
“Is (conservation) as important as me making my mortgage payment? Obviously not,” Mushrush told the Kansas News Service. “Because (prairie chickens) can’t take this ranch, like the bank still could.”
TNC’s Burnidge understands that any conservation effort has to work for both sides. “We must make the case to producers that we have a great deal of common ground with them around the triple bottom line: quality of life, economic viability, and healthy environment. We can’t ask a rancher to sacrifice his ranch to take care of prairie chickens. We have to find solutions that enable them to pay their mortgage and take care of the prairie chicken. And I believe that opportunity exists.”
Testing by The Nature Conservancy
The tests being conducted by TNC utilize a product created by Vence, similar to virtual fences used for dogs, that relies on three pieces of technology:
- A computer or similar ‘smart’ device connected to the internet, which accesses Vence’s interface to create pasture boundaries;
- A radio tower (sometimes two) that communicates those boundaries to cattle; and
- Collars worn by the cattle that receive those signals. Collars are primarily dedicated to the adult cattle, as the yearlings follow their lead.
“The collars have a GPS transponder on them that connects them to a satellite, so each collar ‘knows’ where it is at any given time,” Burnidge said. “By virtue of that, you can send signals to cattle via their collars when they are approaching a virtual fence line: First an auditory signal, a beep or a sound of some kind, and if they persist, they do get an electrical shock.”
A Compelling Option for Cattle Ranchers
Tests have shown it’s effective. “We’re not really looking at whether this virtual fence works – it does. It puts cattle where you want them and keeps them there when you want there.”
And the technology also doesn’t appear to have a negative impact on the herd. “Oklahoma State has been researching a herd managed by a virtual fence, and a herd without virtual fence, and they didn’t find any noticeable difference in the cortisol levels (cortisol is the stress hormone) between the two herds,” said Burnidge. “There’s no evidence that virtual fence is creating additional stress.”
It all adds up to strong interest in the ranching community.
“Virtual fence is selling itself,” Burnidge says. “We collaborated on a field day in Kansas recently to share what we were doing, and we had an uncommonly large turnout of more than 120 attendees … We didn’t understand the demand. So our job in this particular context is to figure out how virtual fence enables you to manage for better soil carbon, economic, and conservation outcomes.”
So what does it cost?
Installing a tower is a one-time cost of roughly $12,000; each collar, paid for on a subscription basis that includes the Vence service, is roughly $40 annually. When you multiply the cost of the collar by the size of a herd, the cost can seem high. “But so does new fence,” Burnidge reminded. “New fence is $15,000 to $20,000 a mile in a good situation.” And that doesn’t include the ongoing maintenance.
Effective Solutions for More than Just Grazing Management
Darla Bramwell didn’t need a study to try virtual fencing at the Bramwell Ranch in southwest Colorado. The team there started using Vence in April for its cow/calf herds at the ranch.
“I was looking for a way to solve several problems,” Bramwell said, including “landowners who want parts of their property grazed and not others. This enables us to fence out what is not to be grazed and allow them to keep their agricultural status.” In addition, she said it enables them to accomplish wetland and river restoration projects by keeping the cows away.
Just as importantly, Bramwell said: “We can spend more time looking at the cows instead of looking for them. We run in rough, rugged terrain. This allows us to know where to ride so we can do a better job of management/care. (And) I can be alerted when an animal is not moving about and get to her location ASAP to help us determine a health issue or a conflict.”
TNC will learn more about management outcomes through ongoing tests at the Mushrush Ranch in Kansas and the Red Top Ranch east of Pueblo in Colorado. The latter ranch, owned by the Malone Family Land Preservation Foundation, will give researchers an idea of the technology’s impact in shortgrass prairies, these days dominated by cattle ranching but also home to imperiled native species such as the burrowing owl and northern pocket gopher. A third project, being developed in concert with the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance, is just about to launch in New Mexico.
Burnidge thinks TNC will begin sharing some of the research results results for the project, being done in concert with Kansas State University and Colorado State University, as soon as 2026.
“We’re asking the same core questions on all three sites: Can we manage differently with a virtual fence in order to improve soil carbon, economic and conservation outcomes?”
Learn more about the opportunities for those interested in owning a cattle ranch in our recent report and then talk to the experts at Mirr Ranch Group to learn more.