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The future of virtual fencing

Gilda V. Bryant for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 October 2019
Virtual fencing

There is virtual fencing (VF) for dogs, and now researchers are studying ways to make this idea possible for beef producers. When available, VF technology will benefit cattle, ranchers, rangeland and wildlife.

Agersens, Halter, No Fence and Vence are developing VF systems using a collar that transmits positional data via GPS. This device enables ranchers to establish pasture boundary lines remotely using a smartphone, tablet or PC from a home office, truck or even on horseback. Some systems allow ranchers to monitor their livestock 24-7. However, expenses will likely increase with more complex plans.

This technology also allows ranchers to train cattle to respond to auditory cues like a beep, visual cues like a blinking light or even vibrations as they approach the VF boundary. If animals ignore the auditory signal and walk within 3 feet of the invisible barrier, an electrical stimulus reminds them to stop. It takes three to seven days of training for cattle to observe the various cues.

Tony Parker, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of animal sciences at Ohio State University, has studied grazing systems. Collaborating with Agersens, he says all breeds seem to learn at the same rate; however, animals tolerate electrical stimuli differently. Some ignore the boundary, and some buck a few times but stay inside the virtual pasture, while others avoid areas that initiate cues.

“The current collars function and work very well,” Parker explains. “But all animals learn at different rates, just as humans do. Some learn quickly, and it might take two to three times to test the imaginary line before they realize that when the beep goes off, they should turn around. We know we’ll get the majority of the herd trained; however, some animals don’t respond and learn.”

VF creates spaces for intensive grazing by small herds that ranchers can move daily. Virtual pastures can accommodate a quarter section or larger for increased herd numbers. Researchers are investigating which pasture sizes work best with cattle and the technology. Animal production experts, agronomists and rangeland scientists can provide recommendations for stocking rates and timing for animal relocation.

This system benefits cattle, too. By moving them across a larger pasture, ranchers decrease parasite contact, reducing parasite load. Rotating cattle to new areas minimizes overgrazing and allows improved total pasture utilization. Unfenced, rough terrain will be available for grazing. With VF, animals can graze underutilized areas, controlling weeds, to boot. When ranchers manage pastures, cattle will have more feed available to them, and wildlife may travel along their natural routes without interruption.

“Ranchers need to utilize it [in a beta test],” Parker advocates. “There’s nothing like giving the product to an operator who will discover new ways to use the product or work out some of the issues. Be patient – this is a new technology.”

Gordon Murdoch, Ph.D., animal and veterinary science professor at the University of Idaho, is passionate about virtual fences. Instead of using a GPS-based system, Murdoch and his team are creating a cell tower-based system because GPS is not always reliable in Idaho’s many mountain ranges.

“We are trying to keep our costs down,” Murdoch reveals. “We’re keeping our system as simple as possible for both the producer and the varied terrain. Whether in mountains or lowland ranges, we want our method to function and be easily adaptable to those areas.”

To do that, collars and other equipment should be small – an eartag design is one option. Then a rancher can arrive at a remote location on horseback and use a tablet to move VF lines. His team’s strategy is to utilize minimal stimuli so the system is not power-hungry. This would enable producers to use it in isolated areas for several months, such as Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leases.

The advantages of VF include the rancher’s ability to define the range or pasture where cattle will graze, including underutilized grazing areas. In many cases, this format can replace electric or traditional barbed wire fences, saving operators time and money on required repairs and maintenance. Sensitive riparian areas can be secure from livestock, preserving fragile creek banks and preventing animal waste from fouling the water. Ranchers can also protect specific wildlife habitats, such as regions where salmon spawn.

“There’s good evidence that grazing livestock reduces fuel and might mitigate the risk of serious fires,” Murdoch explains. “If wildfires are controlled, the farmer’s assets, including buildings, would be at less risk.”

Murdoch hopes to develop a device that will last several years at $10 per animal. Ranchers would also invest around $500 in solar panels to charge an external power source. He figures investing in collars and infrastructure for 100 head would cost less in one year than installing a half-mile, five-strand barbed wire fence.

Excited about the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues who are experts in other disciplines, Murdoch also works with Drs. Jason Karl (range ecologist), Mohamed Hafeida (electrical engineer) and Karen Launchbaugh (range scientist).

“We think a fence without physical boundaries is a progressive way to go,” Murdoch concludes. “Eventually, these systems will be refined so they’ll be a good practice for every American producer.”

Mark Trotter, Ph.D., precision livestock management associate professor at Central Queensland University in Australia, has been involved in testing VF on both cattle and sheep. Trotter suggests there are a number of potential benefits of VF outside of the feed-base management applications. With automated mustering, producers can move animals into consecutively smaller areas for gathering with less labor. In a recent project, Trotter’s research team explored how new augmented GPS systems might improve the accuracy of VF systems and the ways they might be used.

“Current GPS accuracy is about 15 feet,” Trotter reports. “If we can get the systems accurate enough, say less than 2 feet, then we might be able to manage cattle in a strip grazing approach.”

Commercial technology developers must address several key problems to fine-tune this technology. Collars need a sustainable energy source, and most companies are looking at solar panels as the solution. Keeping collars on beef cattle is a challenge because they are rough on the devices.

“The viability of commercial VF systems boils down to the cost of device and service fees,” Trotter states. “How much can companies afford to charge for a collar? Most VF companies have yet to finalize a long-term business model. Hopefully, they can bring an affordable, sustainable pricing model to the beef industry.”

Another issue is consumer support. Consumers are concerned about animal safety and welfare, especially when cattle wear contraptions that can change their behavior by using an electrical stimulus for behavior reinforcement. In Australia, legislative limitations in some states prevent the use of VF systems on livestock.

Currently, the only way to try out VF is to get involved in a R&D trial. Trotter recommends interested ranchers contact VF companies directly for more information to learn where research and product demonstrations are held.

“The potential for this technology is enormous,” Trotter says. Ultimately, producers must do the math to determine if VF will provide a return on their investments. The potential for VF is huge, but the economics and social license of these systems will set their true boundaries.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

Gilda V. Bryant is a freelancer based in Amarillo, Texas. Email Gilda V. Bryant

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