Could Virtual Fences Rein in Free-Range Cows?

Virtual fencing cow collar
©. Scott Bauer, USDA

© Scott Bauer, USDA
Instead of stringing or repairing long lines of fencing across lands that cattle use for grazing, in the future, ranchers may be able to use a virtual fence to keep their stock from straying.

Cows and ranchers take a lot of heat from the green community sometimes, either because of issues such as overgrazing, soil erosion, high water usage, or encroachment on endangered species habitats, but there are plenty of cattlemen out there that are working tirelessly to advance their craft and make it more sustainable.

One such guy is Dean M. Anderson, a scientist at the USDA Animal Research Service in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Anderson's been developing a virtual fencing system that can electronically corral or move livestock via a GPS enabled animal collar. The adoption of such a device, especially in wide-open areas such as the southwest, could have benefits for both the rancher and the local environment.

"You basically program "electronic" polygons, if you will, based upon the current year's pattern of rainfall, pattern of poisonous weed growth, pattern of endangered species growth, and whatever other variables will affect your current year's management decisions. Then you can use the virtual polygon to either include or exclude animals from areas on the landscape that you want to manage with scalpel-like precision.
You could be driving your property in your air-conditioned truck and you notice a spot that received rain in the recent past and that has a flush of highly nutritious plants that would otherwise be lost. Well, you can get on your laptop, right then and there, and program the polygon that contains your cows to move spatially and temporally over the landscape to this "better location." Instead of having to build a fence or take the time and manpower to gather your cows, you would simply move the virtual fence." - Dean M. Anderson in The Atlantic

Anderson's device, dubbed Directional Virtual Fencing (DVF), locates the cows and can signal them electronically, steering them to a new location or away from a sensitive area. Both the open range and the cows benefit from the animals being moved periodically, but on large ranches, especially those without interior fences, it can be time consuming and difficult to place the cattle in the right place at the right time.

The DVF manages the locations of the cows via a GPS signal, which allows for ranchers to to track their movements or to remotely change the shape of the virtual fence, right from their computer.

A couple of advantages that a virtual fence has over a conventional fence is that they don't present a barrier to wildlife, they don't require any permanent modification of the land, and they can be moved appropriately and seasonally with very little labor. Because they can be easily modified and created, protecting fragile habitat or endangered species could be a bit easier with a virtual fence system.

On the flip side, having to buy a device for each animal, plus the software or computer to manage them, might be on the costly side for most ranchers. And given the probability of the tech glitches that happen in even the best of devices, it's likely that it would be difficult to convince a livestock owner to trust their livelihood to an invisible fence.

Will we see hi-tech cow collars creating virtual fences in the very near future? It's unlikely, but when it does, they'll also need to answer the question of how to deal with cow-hacking and virtual rustling.