Researchers, conservationists and ranchers are teaming up to find out if virtual fences can help improve environmental and economic outcomes for beef cattle operations.
In 2022, TNC and partners launched two 5-year pilot projects at working ranches in Kansas and New Mexico. The goal is to determine if virtual fences enable land managers to better implement regenerative management practices, such as rotational grazing, and to assess potential benefits for biodiversity and for ranchers’ bottom lines, as well as impacts on soil carbon storage.
What Is Virtual Fencing?
Hailed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a climate adaption strategy, virtual fencing is an innovative technology that enables ranchers to use a smartphone or web app to remotely monitor and control where and when livestock graze. Virtual fences can reduce the need for physical fences, which require significant time, expense and labor to maintain. Physical fences also limit land managers in their ability to change grazing boundaries to adapt to seasonal changes in vegetation or to exclude cattle from ecologically sensitive areas.
How does virtual fencing work?
The cows are outfitted with battery-operated, GPS-enabled collars that emit a radio frequency to communicate with reception towers, creating virtual grazing boundaries set by a rancher or land manager. When a cow approaches the edge of the virtual boundary, the collar emits a sound signaling it to turn around. If the cow proceeds to cross the boundary, it receives a momentary benign shock, signaling that it’s gone too far and should rejoin the herd. Research shows that the cows are trained in as little as four days to respond to the auditory cues alone.
Virtual Fences as a Conservation Strategy
Grasslands are the least protected habitat on earth and one of the most effective carbon sinks, storing up to 20% of the world’s soil organic carbon. Unfortunately, grasslands are continuing to rapidly disappear for several reasons, including urban sprawl, conversion to row crop agriculture, and energy development. Many remaining rangelands are at risk of further degradation due to extreme weather events, land conversion and incompatible management practices.
For optimum ecological health, most grassland ecosystems need periods of disturbance to aerate the soil, stimulate plant growth and recycle nutrients into the soil. Grasslands also need time to recover, allowing plant roots to take hold, thus decreasing the risk of soil erosion and sediment runoff into waterways. Ranchers accomplish this disturbance-rest cycle by managing the timing, location, herd size and intensity of grazing activities—all of which can be time-consuming and expensive.
If the research hypothesis holds true, virtual fencing will allow ranchers greater flexibility and precision in managing grazing activities, leading to improved soil fertility, enhanced biodiversity and water quality, retained and potentially improved soil carbon sequestration and increased profitability.
“At scale, we believe virtual fencing can help land managers better implement management practices that regenerate land health, help address climate change and biodiversity loss, and improve economic outcomes for ranchers,” said William Burnidge, deputy director of the Regenerative Grazing Lands strategy for TNC's North America Agriculture Program. “The pilot projects will help us determine if our theory holds water and if virtual fencing is an economically feasible tool for implementing regenerative grazing practices.”
Each of the two pilot projects has its own unique set of partners and research goals. At the end of the 5-year trial, the collective body of research will provide quantifiable evidence of whether virtual fencing can help ranchers better implement regenerative grazing practices and achieve global climate and biodiversity goals.
Learn more about our two pilot projects:
TNC is collaborating with Kansas State University, National Park Service, Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition, Point Blue Conservation Science and private producers to test the use of virtual fencing on nearly 10,000 acres at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and on the adjoining Mushrush Red Angus, a private ranch. These sites are in the heart of the Flint Hills, the largest expanse of tallgrass prairie left in the world.
This project will help uncover potential new conservation and land management practices by precisely controlling cattle movement, according to researchers. The partners seek to understand how grazing practices made possible by virtual fencing affect vegetation, soil carbon, watersheds and grassland birds. The experiments will enable scientists to assess the impacts of virtual fencing on the habitat of grassland-dependent birds, including the greater prairie chicken and the Henslow’s sparrow, and study effects on water quality and riparian zones—the areas bordering bodies of water. (Read more about the Kansas pilot project.)
The Pueblo of Jemez, a federally recognized tribal nation and home to 3,400 tribal members, is the site of the second pilot project. Researchers aim to explore how more flexible and precise grazing management activities—made possible by virtual fencing—contribute to environmental and economic outcomes on 15,000 to 20,000 acres of the Pueblo’s rangelands. Specifically, researchers will assess changes in ecological conditions, soil carbon and the livestock enterprise in the shrub-steppe ecosystem on the Pueblo’s grazing lands.
The Pueblo of Jemez is working in partnership with TNC, the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance, Colorado State University, Point Blue Conservation Science and others to develop grazing management plans and design research questions related to the Pueblo’s agricultural and natural resource management priorities.
To build capacity in the local community, plans include partnering with the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance to engage and train a tribal Youth Corps to collect range condition data integral to the ecological research.
Reach out to Christine Griffiths.