Cattlemen’s Call podcast highlights the future of fencing future with virtual fencing company
Several farmers and ranchers are beginning to test the waters of virtual fencing, especially those in rough, rugged country throughout the West.
During the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Cattlemen’s Call podcast on Dec. 27, Montana Rancher Leo Barthelmess describes the way virtual fencing technology has changed his operation and given him more knowledge about his herd.
The Barthelmess Ranch near Malta, Mont. in Phillips County raises Red Angus cattle and practices Allan Savory holistic resource management strategies. In 2018, the ranch looked into virtual fencing and implemented it by 2019.
The use of virtual fences has helped the ranch increase stock density and establish beneficial regenerative grazing practices.
The ranch utilizes a Vence livestock management system, which is a virtual fencing system for cattle. According to the webpage, the system controls cattle movement, manages grazing, creates virtual fences to dictate grazing behavior and monitors animal well-being.
The solution uses advanced GPS tracking to monitor the location of animals within a pasture or grazing area using mobile devices running on Android or iOS operating systems.
“Our goal as a grazing operation is to encourage our cows to eat snow in the winter, so we will fence them into outline areas a long way from water so they can eat snow and graze. We provide appropriate supplements, but by doing this, it allows us to save additional forage near water sources for hot weather during summer and spring,” he says.
Barthelmess hopes to achieve a 12-month grazing season to minimize the need for prepared feeds, hay and supplements.
How it works and benefits
Currently, Vence is the only company to offer a commercial virtual fencing product for livestock in the U.S. Other companies exploring virtual fencing include No Fence, Halter, Agersens and Gallagher.
The Vence app uses GPS collars worn by cattle. The collars emit a radio frequency signal to automatically create a virtual fence around the cattle.
The app keeps track of cattle locations and sends alerts if cattle attempt to leave the virtual fence. When livestock reach the limit of the virtual fence, auditory stimuli emit from the collar. If livestock pass the fence limit, a benign shock is given.
“During the training phase, cows understand fairly quickly that when they hear a sound, there’s going to be event shortly thereafter,” Barthelmess notes.
The company is tuneful of animal welfare, and he notes it’s interesting to see how the virtual fence works in the field when cows historically graze further apart. However, with virtual fencing, a producer can control where exactly cattle graze, he explains.
“In many situations, virtual fencing can be highly beneficial for a lot of people,” mentions Barthelmess.
Depending on the area of the pasture, the batteries in the collars can last anywhere between six months to two years. If collars are lost, they can be found on a map on the Vence webpage, he notes.
“The expense and set up of virtual fencing is not painless, but it’s pretty pain free,” he says.
The biggest expense of virtual fencing is the gateways or towers, which run roughly $10,000 a piece. On the Barthelmess Ranch, cattle are run on very large pastures, varying from 800 to 4,000 acres, and utilize five gateways or towers, covering a total of 25,000 acres.
He notes the steeper the land, the more gateways or towers the program will need.
The rancher incurs the cost of the batteries and rents collars on a monthly basis. According to Barthelmess, in 2019, Vence wasn’t really competitive with barbed wire to wire fence, but today, a barbed wire fence can cost $15,000 a mile give or take, by the time materials are bought.
“In our case, I built 50 miles of fence last year in a couple of hours working on a computer, so the management opportunities are broad and bigger than the hardwire infrastructure because it costs too much to move a hardwire fence,” he says.
The virtual fencing system has allowed Barthelmess to establish intensive grazing without hours of labor, erecting temporary fences on his ranch and leased Bureau of Land Management land.
Barthelmess shares the ranch still utilizes existing infrastructure in terms of boundary fence.
“I enjoy the technology, and I think it has great potential,” he says. “We have not removed any infrastructure on the ranch based on Vence technology. When we need to replace it, we will certainly make the decision whether to restore existing infrastructure.”
Training a cow herd doesn’t take very long. For Barthelmess, it took his herd roughly two days to be trained for virtual fencing.
Transitioning into a virtual fence is not a cheap purchase. It takes a lot of time, commitment and a different kind of work, according to Barthelmess.
He notes there are several YouTube videos about virtual fencing and the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance webpage is a great resource for more information.
“We’re pretty excited about the technology, and I want people to have the opportunity to learn about it,” he says. “The technology is expensive, so ranchers need to have a plan and do the research to see if the product can be done on their property – it’s a lot of effort and change.”
In an Ag Proud article dated Oct. 25, 2021, Barthelmess mentions, “Virtual fences will be a valuable tool on many kinds of ranches. If people want to increase stock density and work cost-effectively at regenerative grazing practices, it’s a tool many ranchers can use.”
He adds, “If producers have a small number of cows in a large pasture, portions of the pasture aren’t grazed or overgrazed. This can be fixed now. Ranchers are responsible for actively managing grazing, preparing sophisticated grazing plans and trying to create long rest periods for the grass. We’ve got to manage our access to water.”
Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.