MOSCOW — Ranches across the American West could make their grazing practices more sustainable through a virtual fence system being developed through a joint University of Idaho project.
Newly awarded federal funding last month kickstarted a four-year field project for researchers at U of I and Washington State University to test the safety and efficacy of a prototype virtual fence system that uses novel features to manage cows, sheep, and other grazing livestock with the minimal ecological footprint.
Livestock and well-managed rangeland require barriers to divide pastures and manage to graze. But physical barriers — expensive to construct, alter and maintain — disrupt wildlife migration and fragment habitats. The new technology under development aims to provide a low-cost tool for sustainable livestock and land management that performs reliably in mountainous western states, where existing virtual systems struggle to provide reliable GPS data.
“As wildlife habitat becomes increasingly fragmented and recreational activities on rangelands continue to grow, maintaining unobstructed corridors for the movement of wildlife and humans is critical,” said Karen Launchbaugh, director of the U of I Rangeland Center. “Advances in wire fence designs have reduced issues for wildlife, but wire fences continue to disrupt wildlife movement.”
Commercial virtual fence systems deliver an electric shock to a cow’s neck when the animal approaches a virtual barrier. These systems eliminate the need for wire fencing by relying on GPS technology but require subscriptions and costly on-the-ground signal towers. Virtual fence systems simplify moving fence locations, but they require routine updates, battery replacement, and recharging. The equipment also costs up to several hundred dollars per cow.
The new virtual fence system being designed by U of I and WSU researchers uses proximity sensing technology that functions in mountainous terrain and shocks the ear, rather than the neck. Both changes can make the system cheaper, less energy is demanding, and more durable.
The Rangeland Center, leading U of I’s project efforts, partners with livestock producers and land managers to identify critical issues affecting rangelands to guide and inform research. The project was awarded a $1 million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture last month.