OSU research may lead to cattle ranches with ‘virtual’ fences

Ryan Reuter, a professor of range beef cattle nutrition at Oklahoma State University, left, and his graduate student, Alayna Gerhardt, place a new virtual fencing collar on a cow. Research into virtual fencing is set to reach a new level this fall at OSU. (Photo by Todd Johnson, OSU Agricultural Communications Services)

STILLWATER – “Don’t fence me in” is a famous cowboy song lyric, but cowboys probably never thought to apply it to cattle – until now.

As a result of advancements in technology blended with cowboy ingenuity, it seems that fenceless cattle ranches may be just over the horizon.

In fact, according to a news release, researchers at Oklahoma State University are planning to take studies on “virtual fencing” technology to the next level this fall after they received a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“We’re looking at how managed grazing with virtual fencing can improve grazing distribution, pasture biodiversity and productivity, and wildlife and pollinator habitat,” said Ryan Reuter, a professor of range beef cattle nutrition in OSU’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences.

OSU researchers have spent the last year studying grazing patterns of cattle through GPS-enabled collars. The collars allow producers not only to monitor where cattle are grazing but also to manage their movements by emitting two stages of auditory cues along – potentially – with a small electrical stimulus.

According to the release, a pilot project in 2019 introduced the technology. Reuter said researchers at first observed where cattle liked to congregate before implementing a “virtual fence and exclusion zone” in the area for about 10 days. The experiment resulted in a 99% success rate in keeping cattle out of the zone.

The next phase of research will involve Reuter and his fellow scientists using collars to manage grazing patterns of cattle. Potentially, management by way of virtual fencing may result in improved pastures along with greater efficiencies.

“I am eager to see if the costs and the analytics prove this to be a viable tool for cow-calf producers,” said Clay Burtrum, owner of Burtrum Cattle, a private ranch participant in the research. “Technology like this allows me to move my herd from wherever I am, and that could be very beneficial to producers, especially if they are like me and have a day job in town in addition to managing a cattle operation.”

According to the release, potential benefits of virtual fencing include:

• Producers will have the ability to implement grazing management recommendations more easily without building physical fence.

• Depending on a producer’s stocking rates, the system could be more cost-effective than building and maintaining physical fence. The cost of technology declines over time, so virtual fencing has the potential to be even more cost effective in the future.

• Virtual fencing gives producers the ability to exercise grazing management in areas where it would be difficult to build physical fence due to the terrain or soil type.

• For producers less able to do the physical work, the technology saves them from having to build fence and manage cattle grazing as often in person.

• Producers with outdated fencing that cattle can easily get through could use virtual fencing as a backup to their physical fencing.

• It allows producers to know where all their cattle are in real time, which can alert producers to problems with their cattle whether they are on-site or not.

“This virtual fencing system is probably going to go commercial within the three years we’re doing this project,” Reuter said. “There will be a lot of producers interested in applying it and who will have questions about it, so we will likely keep it as part of the management system at our research ranch so we can answer questions producers have about it.”

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