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Inside the lines: Virtual fence shows potential for livestock producers

At North Dakota State University, Miranda Meehan has seen virtual fence systems in action with herds of cattle.

The cattle wear tracking collars that are set to allow them access to certain areas of pasture.

Meehan, a livestock environmental stewardship specialist, says virtual fence systems could allow livestock producers to do more strip grazing without having to spend as much time with temporary fencing.

“The benefit I see is reduced labor, at least in-the-field labor,” Meehan says. “Also, the capacity to manage animals on a scale we don’t typically see. We are always encouraging our ranchers to strip graze, but nobody wants to put up a fence they’re just going to take back down.”

Kevin Sedivec is a professor in the range science program at NDSU and worked on virtual fence testing.

“We did it on two different trials last year to see how it worked,” he says. “We did a rotational grazing experiment.”

Sedivec says the virtual fence system kept about 92% of cattle in the designated area, noting that conventional electric fences see some escapes as well. Also, he says the virtual fence system works within physical border fences.

“Cows are herd animals, so if one or two get out they’ll come back and rejoin the herd,” he says. “There’s still a border fence. If they get out, they can’t go too far.”

University of Nebraska Animal Science Professor Yijie Xiong says virtual fences could help address a major challenge in agriculture. 

“We are facing a reduced labor availability in agricultural production systems,” she says. “…This might be something they should really consider and play with that might be able to help them out.”

Livestock producers can use virtual fencing to exclude cattle from certain areas or to keep them in grazing areas rotated through a pasture. Meehan says the virtual fence systems currently available all feature a collar on the cattle and use radio waves or cell data to track the animals. The system has two cues — first a sound when the animals are getting close to the edge of their grazing area, then a shock, similar to an electric fence, when they go outside the area. 

“They get zapped going through, but they don’t get zapped going back (into the designated area),” Sedivec says.

Meehan says cattle learn the system fairly quickly.

“They do go through a training period. It’s about four days,” she says.

Sedivec says this training often involves setting the virtual fence system to line up with an existing barbed wire fence, so cattle get used to the audio cue when they get close to the edge and know to work back the other way.

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