For me, being able to manage animals without fencing is the Holy Grail of farming and ranching. Imagine it: No more pounding posts in the hot sun, no more unwinding and rewinding spools of wire, no more accidentally grabbing onto the fence and getting shocked,and all while animals stay just where you want them. I am so grateful for the folks who are actually getting close to making this dream a reality!
Failed Attempts Plant Seeds of Hope
Almost 20 years ago when I was just starting my research on using goats to graze firebreaks, I wanted to find a solution for keeping the animals confined that didn’t involve herders (who were said to be unreliable) and fences (which took time and money). My research partner had read about experiments using flagging tape to outline boundaries and training animals to respect these boundaries with shock collars. We decided to try this out, so we built a small enclosure with rope and flagging tape, and put one goat outfitted with my colleagues dog’s shock collar. Our plan was that every time he walked toward the fence, we would press the button to shock him, and he would learn “I better not go there.” There were two problems. First our reflexes weren’t quick enough to press the button just when he got to the fence. So often he got shocked as he was walking away from the fence line. In addition, his neck hair prevented him from feeling a mild shock, and we turned up the heat. The result was a goat who walked towards the fence, then back to the middle, got a big shock and jumped in the air with a little yelp. His solution to all this was to stand in the middle of the rope pen, shivering because he couldn’t figure out what to do.
Ten years later, an experiment at Vermont Technical College experiment ended in failure as well. Cattle were outfitted with dog collars that beeped as they approached a boundary, and that shocked them if they crossed the boundary. Here’s what the researchers found:
“The older calves soon became acclimated to the warning beep from the collars and learned to ignore it. They also began exploring their boundaries more intensely and figured out that if they could make it across the designated boundary line quickly, they would only receive minimal shock time before getting far enough away from the system when it would stop shocking and beeping them.” From “Fenceless Grazing” 2007 NESARE final report, Christopher Dutton, Project Coordinator, DVM (You can download it here. It’s short and interesting.)
A Workable System
One of the key points that Dutton took from his project was that he was using a tool that was designed for a completely different species with different behaviors. That’s something that Dean Anderson of the USDA-ARS Jornada Experimental Range figured out early on, as he began developing a system that would work with the natural behavior of cattle and use technology that wasn’t available when Dutton and I were experimenting with the idea.
Anderson’s Direction Virtual Fence (DVF™) system focuses on the behavior of cattle and how they respond to “stimuli” like sound and pain, and takes advantage of GPS information to locate cattle and set up “polygons” where he’d like them to graze. The device slips over a cows ears (and horns if they have them). It can transmit electrical shocks and sound to one or both ears, can administer chemicals (like pesticides) if you like, and can transmit information about the location of the cow. It is powered by a small solar collector on top of the animals head.
In an interview with “Venue” Anderson said, “When these kinds of systems have been built for dog training or dog containment in the past, they simply had a shock, or sometimes a sound first and then a shock. The stimulus wasn’t graded according to proximity or the animal’s personality.” Anderson decided to change that to work better for cattle by taking into account what we know about cattle’s hearing. Instead of a single “fence line” he creates a virtual belt which in the diagrams is shaded from blue to red. When the animal enters the blue area it hears a very soft sound, almost like a whisper. As it moves closer and closer to the red zone, the sound increases in volume, up to the sound of a 747 airplane taking off. Likewise the shock is graded, starting out with something small and irritating and increasing in strength the closer than animal gets to the red zone. Failsafe mechanisms are built in so that if the animal finally does have to cross the line, it will not be injured or driven crazy by the sounds in its ears.
Individual cattle will respond differently to the sounds and shocks. Below is an example of what 2 different cattle did. Note that the “green” cow traveled further into the virtual belt than the “red” cow:
Now, if Anderson wants to move his cattle to a new paddock, he simply adjusts the location of the virtual belt. He can move it behind them, to keep them moving forward to a new paddock. He can build a virtual belt alley way to move them to a completely different part of the ranch, maybe to an area that just had rain and is experiencing a new flush of growth. Says Anderson, “It can be slowed down where there’s abundant forage, and sped up where forage is limited so you have a completely dynamic, flexible system in which to manage free-ranging animals.”
You can also use this system to “talk” to your cattle. The cows that Anderson works with are used to him herding them up and talking to them as he heads them to their corral. One day he recorded his “cow-moving song.” Says Anderson, “We later transferred the sounds of my manual gathering into the DVF™ device. Then when we wanted to gather the animals we wirelessly activated the DVF™ electronics and my “song”—“Come on, girls, let’s go”—began to play. Instead of a negative irritation, this was a positive cuing—and it worked. The cows moved to the corral based on the cue, without me actually being present to manually gather them—it was an autonomous gather.” Here’s what that looked like:
So When Can You Outfit Your Cattle With the DVF™ System?
Well, that could still be a ways in the future. Until the device can be manufactured at a larger scale, it might not be cost effective for many operations. But in at least one case, where a mining company needed to build a fence in order to operate, Anderson’s system was much more cost effective than the $63,000 bid to build the fence in question.
Fenceless grazing may still be in the future, but it’s a future that I can almost see from where we are now.
Quotes from Dean Anderson came from an interview with is from Venue by Future Plural. You can read the entire interview here.