Luark and the cattle of other ranchers graze millions of acres of public land in Colorado. The way he and other ranchers manage their cows can affect the health of the land for livestock, wildlife and the climate.
Despite years of consecutive drought made worse by global warming, the grass seems to be improving here. Luark and Wallner credit new technology that allows them to move livestock without physical fences.
As part of the system, cows are fitted with impact collars – similar to those used to train dogs – which use GPS and receiving towers to form a virtual fence controlled by a computer. Vence’s technology (for “virtual fence”) makes it easier for Luark to move his livestock and determine how long he needs to graze in a particular location.
He used the technology to keep his 600-acre cows away that needed to rest and regrow, a process that means healthier grass and soil when the cows eventually come back. The Bureau of Land Management funds the virtual fence experiment with a grant.
“Now we can move the fences and use the ground in a way we’ve never even thought of,” said Wallner, the office’s project manager.
Wallner sees a lot of benefits in using Vence’s technology on BLM courts. Without physical fences, wildlife can move freely across the landscape. Virtual fences also mean that people recreating themselves on public land won’t accidentally leave a cow gate open. And because the location of livestock is updated on a digital map, ranchers will know if they’ve strayed into no-go areas.
Moving livestock improves ecosystem health, but rotational grazing is not a new idea. Ranchers use portable electric fences to do the same thing, but it comes with challenges. It is labor-intensive, wildlife can knock down fences, and some pastures – such as on the side of a mountain – are difficult to access.
Todd Parker, director of product and program management at Vence, demonstrated how the software works in a training video. It displays a Google map, which is marked with different shapes representing pastures on a ranch. In one place there are dozens of small dots marking the location of the cows covered with orange lines indicating the location of the virtual fence.
Parker said Vence technology allows ranchers to spend less time hunting cows and repairing fences and more time managing the health of their animals and the land. He said ranchers fear being replaced by virtual fences, but he tells them the technology doesn’t eliminate the cowboy – it just changes the job.
Freeing ranchers to focus on grass and soil health instead of keeping livestock can increase profits and reduce animals’ contributions to climate change, Parker said.