Schools, jobs and events took virtual formats during the coronavirus pandemic. Next on the list? Fences.
An Oklahoma State University research project aims to determine whether ranchers can use virtual fence systems to control cattle herds. The United States Environmental Protection Agency awarded researchers at the university more than $ 800,000 for the study in June.
Researchers began studying the technology in February 2020 and worked with California-based company Vence, which develops the fence systems, officials said. Thanks to the EPA grant, which provides funding for the next three years of the project, researchers say they are ready to study the technology until the cows come home.
“We are now ready to move on to longer-term studies,” said Dr Kevin Wager, an OSU professor who is leading the study. “It will be a good project, and I’m really excited about it.”
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How virtual fences work
In some ways, fences are similar to invisible fences for dogs and other pets.
Using a virtual fence system, herders can set boundaries to contain livestock in pastures or in specific parts of pastures. Cattle wear collars equipped with a GPS around their necks which emit a sound when they are near a virtual dividing line.
If the cattle ignore the sound, they will receive an electric shock. The goal, the researchers said, is to teach the cattle to listen to the sound and turn around, rather than crossing the line and shaking themselves off.
Virtual fence systems may require less labor and maintenance than traditional barbed wire fencing or electric fencing, Wagner said. However, they are not designed to replace permanent fencing around pastures.
“It would be more to replace internal fences,” Wagner said.
The technology is probably better suited for medium and large livestock farms, but it may provide benefits for smaller farms in the future, the researchers say. Since fencing systems are still under development, it is difficult to determine what they might cost.
“Over a three-year period, we should have a really good idea of the workforce reduction that this entails,” Wagner said. “It will really help us answer a lot of the questions we have – and breeders have – about technology before we invest in it.
Benefits to land, wildlife
Researchers conducted trials of virtual fencing systems in 2020 and learned that fences could help prevent overgrazing of pastures and damage to waterways, the researchers said.
When animals like cattle have unrestricted access to streams, they can eat too much vegetation along stream banks. This reduces water quality and potentially causes erosion, said Dr Laura Goodman, an assistant professor of ecology and natural resource management at OSU who is working on the study.
“They’re starting to degrade the banks of streams,” Goodman said. “Then the stream widens, which means the water temperature rises, so it doesn’t contain as much oxygen for fish and other wildlife. “
The boundaries of virtual fences can be easily set, which means pastoralists can change the areas that livestock have access to, including waterways. Ranchers could use these fences to temporarily keep livestock away from parts of a pasture that have been overgrazed, allowing vegetation to grow back, Goodman said.
Fences also have less harmful impacts on native wildlife than traditional fences because other animals will not be blocked by barbed wire and fence posts, Goodman said.
“Virtual fence is great for being able to change the way you use your pasture,” Goodman said. “The flexibility of virtual fencing is really one of the main ‘pluses’ of using this type of technology. “
The researchers plan to test virtual fences on university grounds with the help of graduate students working on the project. They also plan to work with pastoralists in the region to test the technology with their herds.
“We’ll get the breeder’s perspective on the benefits and some of the issues with the technology, maybe some things that need to be addressed before it becomes fully commercial,” Wagner said.
The researchers say field tests will be an important part of the study.
“Progressive breeders are our customer base for purchasing this virtual capability,” Todd Parker, director of product development for Vence, said in a press release. “Technology changes rapidly and when we can get third-party validation from an agricultural research perspective, it’s the best way to drive commercial adoption.”