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How Satellite-Guided Cows Might Save the Kansas Prairie and Make Ranchers More Money

How Satellite-Guided Cows Might Save the Kansas Prairie and Make Ranchers More Money

By Celia Llopis 

Third-generation rancher Daniel Mushrush has 30-plus miles of barbed wire fence to tend to.

Calves wriggle beneath it. The wires get loose. Wild animals take a toll. And when streams surge after storms, rushing water often snaps sections in two.

For Mushrush and his family, the fence-mending on their Flint Hills ranch never ends. It’s inescapable.

“Fencing is right up there with death and taxes,” the third-generation cattle rancher said.

But this year, his cattle sport new GPS collars intended to make traditional fences not quite obsolete, but less important. About the size of an iPhone and twice as thick, the collars offer a high-tech take on the kind of familiar invisible fences that homeowners install for dogs.

Mushrush joined a Nature Conservancy project that brings together ranchers, scientists and conservation experts in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.

Their work is part of a flurry of recent studies into the tech world’s fledgling virtual fence industry.

Mushrush’s Red Angus cattle will help researchers learn whether the devices can save ranchers money and simultaneously help ailing bird populations, reduce water pollution and increase the resilience and diversity of grasslands.

Biologists from Kansas State University will help study the effects of a project that could prove a model bridge between conservationists and Flint Hills ranchers.

The agriculture and conservation fields often stand at odds, but they also share some common ground in their appreciation of the nation’s last significant stretches of unplowed tallgrass prairie.

“If I’m going to own Flint Hills grass, there’s a moral obligation to treat it like it’s sacred,” Mushrush said. “Because it is. There’s not very much left.”

Still, paying his bills comes first. Protecting wildlife, such as the disappearing greater prairie chicken, comes second.

“Is it as important as me making my mortgage payment? Obviously not,” he said. “Because (prairie chickens) can’t take this ranch, like the bank still could.”

How the collars work

The Mushrush ranch is home to between 800 and a couple thousand cattle, depending on the time of year. The family owns or leases about 15,000 acres.

Seen on a map, the ranch is shaped something like Africa. Fencing, meanwhile, cuts across it in straight lines.

“That’s where it was drawn out 100 years ago,” Mushrush said. “That’s where the fence is yet today.”

Those rigid lines are blind to the curvy contours that shape this land — flat-topped hills, rocky ledges and snake-like, meandering streams.

Yet when it comes to grazing, the contours matter. They effectively funnel cattle toward some areas and away from others.

And when the herd consistently opts, say, to lounge along a creek, the damage can add up. The cattle can chomp and stomp the same areas too much, tearing up the banks and filling the stream with nitrogen from their manure.

Mushrush decided to try the GPS collars. His barbed wire fences just aren’t where he needs them, making it hard to give vegetation the right balance of grazing and rest that produces more robust grasses.

When grasses suffer, it limits how many animals a ranch can support.

Mushrush can’t solve the problem by installing ever more physical fences, which can cost thousands of dollars per mile. Even with temporary fences, it’s tough. This landscape — including when any given swath of it would benefit from more or less grazing — is simply too nuanced.

Virtual fence aims to let ranchers block off any zone on their property by pulling up a map on an electronic tablet and using software to set the lines.

Adding a buffer zone along a winding creek — practically impossible, and prohibitively expensive with normal fences — becomes easy. So do other changes, such as redrawing paddocks or moving cattle to let grazed grasses grow.

The GPS collars don’t require ranchers to bury wires in the ground the way invisible fences for dogs frequently do.

If cattle walk toward the invisible line, the collars make noises. If they keep walking, those noises get louder. If they cross the line, the collars deliver a shock.

Most of the cattle take the hint. A few shrug off the discomfort and cross the barrier to munch on the proverbial greener grass.

But if most of the cattle stick to the rules, that could be enough to benefit ranchers, flora and fauna.

Where interests overlap

The Nature Conservancy has an interest in ranchers succeeding financially.

Flint Hills ranchers run their cattle on what the environmental group describes as one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, with more than 500 plant species.

Once one of North America’s dominant landscapes, settlers and their descendents plowed almost the entire continent’s tallgrass to plant crops.

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