Kaitlyn Dozler, Graduate StudentYijie Xiong, Precision Livestock Management SpecialistMitch Stephenson, Range Management Specialist
As technology continues to improve and advance, the idea of virtual fencing, or being able to manipulate grazing management remotely through on-animal devices linked with GPS, has intrigued ranchers all over the world. The ability to adjust where herds are grazing in real time from a computer or smartphone would save time, labor, and make targeted and diversified grazing strategies more attainable to ranchers. At GSL, research is being conducted to explore how virtual fencing compares as a modern approach to traditional fencing for modified grazing strategies and the overall impact on cattle management and stress levels caused by the virtual fence collars.
Virtual fencing technology is used to create invisible boundaries that function similarly to a physical fence. Cattle are managed to stay within or away from designated areas. The technology is very similar to the idea of invisible fence collars for dogs. Richard Peck patented the concept of invisible fence in 1973 with the first research trials occurring in the late 1980’s. The first virtual collars used for livestock management were successful but battery length and their cumbersome design made them impractical for commercial scale opportunities. Fast-forward to 2022 and the modern-day advances to the collar design and easy to use programs are making virtual fencing more accessible to ranchers.
On a virtual fence pasture, each cow is equipped with an around the neck wearable virtual fence collar (see picture 1). The collars use GPS to locate where the animal is located in relation to the user defined virtual fence. Low frequency signals are sent to a receiver tower and a cellular networks relays the information for real time updates on fence boundaries and GPS location data. Livestock managers have the ability to “build” fences on a map-based online user interface. These virtual fences can be formatted and changed quickly to meet the needs of grazing cattle and landscape vegetation use. When cattle go near the virtual fence, the first deterrent is a loud beeping sound administered by the collar if the cow gets within a certain distance of the virtual boundary, if the cow continues to move closer to the boundary a small electric shock will be emitted by the collars.
How can this benefit grazing managers? Virtual fencing systems give ranchers the ability to create diverse grazing strategies with very little or added expense of putting up miles of electric fence to create grazing paddocks when it can all be done in minutes from a computer. This allows for more flexibility in management without permanent or temporary fencing infrastructure. The virtual fence system allows for inclusion and exclusion grazing. For example, if a rancher burned half a quarter of pasture to get rid of cedar trees and they want to give more rest in the grazing season, virtual fence can be used to exclude the cattle from the burned half of the pasture. It can also be used to monitor where cattle are grazing and exclude those areas as the growing season progresses to provide in-season recovery while still grazing on areas that have had little or no grazing. Lastly, targeted cattle grazing at strategic locations for specific purposes (e.g., invasive species management) can be accomplished by managing virtual fencing to increase stock densities at these locations. More research is needed to develop a stronger understanding of the economic feasibility of this technology, but as the technology improves, there will be more opportunities to develop virtual fencing as a viable tool to manage cattle grazing across large landscapes.
Cattle with virtual fence collars and an example of the online user interface with the white “fence” showing the area where cattle will receive a sound warning and the red “fence” showing areas where cattle will be shocked if they continue within the area. Current cattle GPS locations are represented by the black cattle icons.