Virtual Fences for Cattle Find a Home on the Range
“Virtual fences could be a game-changing grazing innovation, especially on public lands where permanent fences are prohibited. “I think it’s the best thing since barbed wire,” said Kristy Wallner, a BLM rangeland specialist in Colorado.
Just like the product for dogs, collars give a shock when cows try to stray; ‘the best thing since barbed wire,’ but maybe not so great for cowboys
STRONG CITY, Kan.—Cole Mushrush does two things when he wakes up each morning at the family ranch here in the Flint Hills—make a pot of coffee, then fire up his laptop to see if any cows have wandered astray.
Not many do, because electronic collars have been hung around their necks that give them a jolt if they try to cross one of the invisible fence boundaries created on a computer. The digital fence follows the contours of a pasture, and the collars are designed to keep the cows hemmed in without having to go to the expense of building a real fence.
Now in their second year, he said, the collars have mostly deterred cows from wandering past the no-go zone—although the animals don’t always behave as desired after a shock that comes following warning beeps.
“Some of them close their eyes and run,” he said. “We don’t need that.”
Virtual fences with electronic collars were patented for dogs in the 1970s, often employing electric wire buried underground. Livestock versions were first manufactured in the U.S. in the 1980s, but technology advances are now making them more accessible to ranchers.
Frank Wooten said he founded San Diego-based Vence, part of a budding industry of virtual fencers, in part due to federal research that found cattle could be trained to respond to sound. Vence, which was acquired by the animal-health unit of U.S. drug company Merck & Co. last year, has deployed 40,000 of the collars and plans to up that to over 75,000 by year’s end.
“The concept dates back to Pavlovian training,” Wooten said. “You’re saying the animal shouldn’t go there, and you train the animal not to go there.”
Mushrush’s brother, Daniel, who helps run the ranch, said the family was approached two years ago by the Nature Conservancy to see if they’d like to use the collars on the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, which it co-manages with the National Park Service.
Situated on rolling green hills 120 miles southwest of Kansas City, Mo., the sanctuary abutting the ranch previously had been off limits to their cows. But officials of the group said they wanted to test fenceless grazing as part of a state and federal partnership.
The Mushrushes liked the idea because fences can cost as much as $15,000 a mile to install and maintain, and they already have 60 miles of fence on their ranch. The virtual fences cost them $50 per collar a year in rental and battery fees. For 325 cows, that’s $16,000 annually. (The many calves on the ranch don’t need collars because they follow their mothers.) The Mushrushes said they also had to buy two base stations for $12,500 each. The ranch got some funding from nonprofit groups involved in the project.
The cows underwent a four-day training regimen, which included a warning beep followed by shock and playing around with the boundaries. There were a few rule breakers, such as when a cow might see her friend on the other side of an invisible fence.
“There are social cliques within cows,” Daniel Mushrush said. “They will sometimes walk through the shock to be with their friend.”
In addition to keeping cows where ranchers want them to be, virtual fences also help prevent overgrazing, and keep grasses mowed down to help cut down on wildfire as well as the spread of invasive brush, proponents say.
A base station at Tallgrass Prairie receives GPS signals from electronic collars worn by cattle, allowing ranchers to track their herds remotely.
To make a virtual fence work, base stations with power have to be deployed in strategic locations, such as a hilltop, and digital pastures are set in place. In 2021, the Bureau of Land Management deployed some stations. It enlisted Vence to work with ranchers on distributing collars and software, which are now used on some 2,000 cows.
“I think it’s the best thing since barbed wire,” said Kristy Wallner, a BLM rangeland specialist in Colorado.
Rancher Pat Luark, who was first to try it there, said he liked features including the ability to prompt his little dogies to get along by digitally moving a Vence closer behind them, at a rate of 30 feet an hour. Things weren’t always smooth, such as the day the power went down around eight bulls and they moseyed off.
“We called it Jurassic Park,” Wallner said, referring to a scene in which dinosaurs escape when the power to an electric fence goes out.
Many cows don’t take to the collars right away. “They look at you like, ‘What is this you put around my neck’, then they dance around for a few minutes,” said Clayton Gerard, a Colorado rancher in his second year of using them. “But then they’re fine with it.”
In Arizona, rancher Drew McGibbon said the collars tend to get pulled off by trees and brush as his cows roam the rugged mountains south of Tucson. “We have a fairly substantial pile in our barn right now,” he said.
At first, his cowboys were skeptical when his ranch began trying the collars two years on 500 head of cattle. “Then a month into it, they were saying, ‘We’re missing a few, can you fire up the computer?’ ” he said.
Brett Blum, a University of Arizona director who helps manage state land being used for part of the virtual-fencing program, said a graduate student tested the collar on himself. He said it hurt “less than a bee sting.”
Saddling up in an all-terrain vehicle to check up on the herd at the Mushrush Red Angus Ranch last week, Cole Mushrush found they were in a sleepy little valley right where they belonged. “They are being extra good, hamming it up for you,” Mushrush said as the bovines—some mooing—approached with shock collars that look like an oversize mobile phone.
He drove off to try to find a still functioning collar that had fallen off a more rambunctious cow days earlier, but his iPhone showed only a general area where it was without denoting his own location. “One of my gripes is they don’t have an app,” he said.
But after a few minutes of slowly circling around some clumps of brush, he let out a whoop: “Found it!” Then he turned to a reporter in tow and asked if he’d like to give the collar a go.
As the reporter nervously approached an invisible fence holding the collar by its electrodes, Mushrush called out: “That’s your warning beep.” Twenty two steps later, a jolt akin to touching a light socket prompted the reporter to yell out and drop the collar.
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