AoR 120: Could Virtual Fence Transform Rangeland Grazing? Launchbaugh, deAvila, & Pearson

What if grazed wild, open spaces were actually open? Is barbed wire still useful? Can we afford it? Are there other ways to control livestock distribution today? Would other options be "better"? Fenceless control of livestock has been discussed for decades, and these technologies may mimic herding, which was practiced nearly everywhere, at least on large landscapes, up until the invention and adoption of barbed wire in the late 1800s. This interview discusses pros and cons of permanent wire fence, hoped-for benefits of virtual fence, varieties of virtual fence systems, and the many applications for the deliberate, targeted grazing made possible through virtual fence, and much more. Virtual fence is a "disruptive technology" that is innovating quickly, will diversify quickly, and will get cheaper quickly. Stay tuned to The Art of Range Podcast for more on the ups and downs of virtual fence.


>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at Welcome back to the Art of Range. My guests today are Karen Launchbaugh, a range professor at University of Idaho. And I think, Karen, you might have been the very first episode on the Art of Range back five years ago.

>> A great honor, yes.

>> We've also got one of Karen's students, Hope de Avila. She's been working on some virtual fence research at the University of Idaho. Hope, welcome.

>> Thanks. Happy to be here.

>> We've also got John Pearson. John is an Eastern Washington rancher, used to be a fencing contractor. He's recovering. He was also a recovering farm supply retailer and he's a welcome immigrant. You're not from around here originally.

>> No, I'm not. Good morning. Glad to be here. Originally from New Zealand. Came here in the mid-'80s.

>> Glad to have you. Well, we want to talk about virtual fence. But before that, we need to talk about what's called usually permanent fence. I think we in the United States take wire fence for granted. And by that, I mean that barbed wire is used everywhere to contain domestic livestock of all kinds. There's some rich people and horsey folk that use board fences but, you know, that's for containing valuable animals in a small area. But pretty much on large landscapes, pastures that are used for livestock in what I would call extensive grazing situations are usually contained by barbed wire. And I think because modern Americans are famously ignorant of history, we assume this is the only way that it's done. But barbed wire fence is actually a pretty new arrival on the animal husbandry scene. In some senses, wire fence is kind of a curious thing and people saw it that way when it was first introduced. Karen, your father-in-law is a bit of a historian on barbed wire fence and has one of the more impressive collections of old barbed wire. And you and Hope have both done a fair bit of work on the history of barbed wire. Can you tell us a bit about that?

>> Well, interesting. Yeah. Today, if you went into the store to look for barbed wire, you'd find two -- maybe two or three types. But it started out in the 1870s when people were coming into the plains. And it's great to raise livestock on those grasslands, but they're short of things that they had been using for fences like wood and stones. And so they had to find some way to contain animals. Of course, herding, we might talk about that, too. That's always been used. But then how do you contain them in a place? And about 1870s, some people started thinking, "Well, here's this new thing, wire, that could be made in large quantities." And they started twisting it and putting barbs on it and called it barbed wire. I think my most interesting story there was in the 1800s, the San Antonio Stock Show was going. So it was one of the earliest stock shows in the country. And they actually had a demonstration to show that animals could be held with barbed wire. Like now, that is just we absolutely know that it works. But at one time, people didn't realize if it would work. The other interesting thing about the story is only two or three kinds available today. But once people started buying up patents for barbed wire, people sat around fires in the winter and figured out how to make a new patent that would be sold to someone. So there's over 470 patents for barbed wire. And of those, well into 300 or maybe even close to 400 have been produced maybe only just a few feet or a few miles. So there's people like my father-in-law and I'm happy to say I inherited this lovely collection of several hundred barbed wires. So we think of it as just a part of the west, always been there. But it was a real innovation in the 1800s and it really created opportunities for grazing.

>> So prior to that, livestock management would all have been herding, right?

>> Herding. You know, going back in Europe, you see a lot of stone fences. Here in the US, we tried wood fences as much as we could. Actually, on the plains, they used sod. They'd layer sod to try to make a boundary or even plant hedges that when they grew, they'd kind of weave together and create a living hedge that would serve as the barrier. With both of those, you can imagine how time-intensive it would be. And, you know, obviously with the hedge, you have to wait a couple years to get a return on that investment until you can actually manage animals with that. So, yeah, the barbed wire was a real game-changer.

>> Yeah, and those kinds of more labor-intensive fences work well if you're containing a smaller number of animals in an area that has a high-forage density. But in, you know, in rangelands where you might have tenfold less, you know, forage per acre, it seems like the economics of that don't work out so well.

>> No.

>> Yeah. What? There's -- we've been using permanent wire fence for some time. So there -- it's mostly effective. I mean I -- as we all know, there's a lot of complaints about barbed wire not containing animals very well, especially in large remote landscapes where somebody is not there to look at them all the time. If a cow jumps a fence, you might not know it for quite some time. But what are some of the things that are good about permanent fence?

>> I think the real advantage is we know it works. And if it fails, it's largely us because we didn't -- we weren't able to or we didn't make it tight enough or the animals were not trained well enough to use it. So I think you can solve -- you can have nearly 100% containment with wire. So that's one thing. We'll talk later about other options, virtual fence, electric fence. Those all -- they all fail at some point. And barbed wire is one. And I think if you do it right -- and, John, this might be more of a question for you. But I think if you do it right, you can have 100% containment which is what you need in very dangerous areas like along roadways or along perimeters of your property.

>> Yes. I don't think anything is ever 100%. But for sure, along right-of-ways or roadways, you need something. And another thought, it's not related to livestock but a barbed wire fence also delineates a property line. And I still see people building fences that don't have livestock. And just to say that this is where the property line is. And so, fences have that. You know, as I say, it's nothing to do with livestock, but.

>> Yeah. A friend of mine said, "Well, I'm not building this to control any cattle. I'm building it to control some people."

>> Yes.

>> So they know when they're on the wrong side of the fence.

>> Yeah. And like most fences, when they don't work, it's usually because they weren't built right.

>> Or maintained --

>> Right.

>> -- correctly.

>> Right.

>> Yeah. We always say you can build the fence, but then the maintenance starts almost immediately, especially out west or probably anywhere. When you think about the snow loads and trees falling on it and wild animals, you know, big game animals running through these, the maintenance starts almost immediately or could start almost immediately.

>> Right. And the fact that fences usually sit on property boundaries or other legal boundaries, you know, I would list as one of the first problems with permanent fence as well. And that oftentimes makes no sense in terms of where you might want to put livestock or should put livestock or matching animal movement patterns. But I think I want to start with the problem of cost first, because I think this is the thing that is causing the market to shift a little bit. The cost of wire fence, at least today, is astronomical. And maybe it always was. You know, the maintenance costs are high. And it was my observation that a lot of the fence lines that are in need of replacement today are the first fences that ever got put up in that part of the country. You know, it's an old, you know, wood triangular jack that sat on top of the rock and that had barbed wire stuck into it. And now, the frames laying down, the wires on the ground and it pretty much requires complete replacement. And that fence is probably 80 to 100 years old. And we have those all over the place. So, I'm not so sure that that it was ever financially feasible to maintain barbed wire everywhere. You know, even if we say we repaired or replaced fence in some, you know, you get an economist to say what the ideal replacement schedule would be. But say we replace Jim Sprinkle suggested every 25 years. If we replaced every mile of fence every 25 years, it's a gigantic amount of money, like 50 miles of fence at $25 a mile which would be low. And you replace two miles every year. That's $50,000 annual maintenance or replacement costs. That's a lot of money, particularly for a fence that only works -- it's only effective in managing livestock in that particular spot.

>> Correct. Correct. And one of the big expenses is not so much the material anymore but it's the labor. And if you just look at the way labor has changed in the last hundred years and how much money you can make sitting in a desk somewhere as opposed to going out and doing the physical work and, you know, relatively, you know, based on years ago, we just can't find people to do the work. And coming back to your property lines, the property lines were never -- property corners and property lines originally were surveyed. They were never surveyed with a fence in mind. And certainly in the United States, there's the square miles that's on a market. So you'll end up in a corner, the property corner sitting on a pile of rock.

>> Right.

>> You know, whereas if you could choose where your fence would be, you'd fence the rocks inside the pasture, not between the pastures, if it makes sense.

>> Right. You have fence lines that go straight up the side of a mountain.

>> Yeah.

>> Through the middle of the rocks instead of following travel patterns. Yeah, it's expensive. Probably always was expensive. You know, one of the problems we have in ranch economics in general is that people don't value their own labor and don't figure in either depreciation or replacement costs. And so, you know, a fence that great-granddad put in 1935, we just figure it's a free fence, but it's not a free fence. Eventually, you have to pay that piper.

>> Something that's not well known is that the Hope here has worked on fence contracting crew. And so you might talk a little, Hope, about some of the challenges that that putting up a fence and some of that rough country is.

>> Well, OK, first, we got to clarify, I was not actually on the fence contracting crew. I signed up for ranch work that summer and ended up working with the fence contracting crew. I was an honorary member.

>> The fence didn't work?

>> I didn't sign up for that, but that's what we ended up doing. It was a great experience, but we were definitely in rough country. It was in the breaks of the snake. And this crew, we actually had to helicopter supplies and something else people don't think about is the cost of getting supplies in where you need them to build this fence. And, yeah, talk about, yeah, not ideal property lines. That's what we were doing. We were replacing a large stretch of property line and putting in some road fence. The road fence was nice. You could drive along it. That was a fun fence. The other one, it was straight up and down, charging up those breaks there. Rocky is all get out. You wished you could move the post to avoid the rock. And yeah, it's -- it took us pretty much all summer. I spent three months on that. And it was I think in total maybe two miles of fence we actually built. So it's, yeah, incredible.

>> Yeah. That's a good example. When a landowner, whether public or private, finds that they need a new piece of fence in a spot, either between property owners or for whatever purpose and discover that that's going to cost $80,000 for two little miles of fence, that's real money.

>> Yeah.

>> What are some other problems with wire fence? I mean, the obvious stuff that comes to mind is wildlife. That's sort of been in the news in the west recently. There's funding out there for, you know, adapting existing fence or building wildlife-friendly fence like in the aftermath of fire. You have any thoughts on wildlife?

>> Yeah, well, certainly wildlife. Some good research shows this is not a made-up thing. It's -- every fence has some wildlife collision problem. And not just that, just separating habitat, increasing predation also when coyotes and stuff can slow animals down because of a fence, that's a predation risk that increases. So, yeah, wildlife corridors, movement across habitats, fragmentation of habitats, loss because of collisions and getting entangled in the fence, oh, that's not nice to see. Ranchers don't like to see it either. I mean, it's just none of us care for that.

>> No, I know several ranchers that have personally untangled elk from wire fence. And that's not a -- that's a risky thing to do.

>> Can't imagine. I think other things about fences that are a problem is you guys have all seen weeds that roll along. But, you know, plants are often dehisced so that they roll and spread their seeds and they end up on a fence. So you end up with weeds along the fence. Also, birds that come along sit on the fence, deposit some seeds. They end up with juniper and other plants right along the fence. That's why they're growing there. That's a problem. Then if you get a fire come through and you got those wood posts, so that's another real frustration. You've got a fence. It's working fine. Fire comes through. The wire gets brittle. The posts get down. Your only option is to replace it at that point. So, it's a fire problem also.

>> John, you've recently sold a fence contracting business. So you're now -- you have permission to speak freely about fence. Any thoughts on problems with wire fence that we haven't talked about?

>> No, I'm going to bounce back to Karen's mention of fire. It's these last few years with some of these big range fires going through and burning down miles of fence. And it's right there when the rubber meets the road where the farmer has to build a new fence and he looks at the range and the production from that piece of ground. And at that point, he's been using that fence for 100 years and maintaining it. But when he has to replace it, he finds out that the land does not pay for the fence, the production from the land. And that's kind of a scary thought when you think about the fact that the -- or the ratio from the cost of the fence to the production from the land has got out of -- that ratio has got way out of whack.

>> Yeah. And I suspect that the critic would say that's one more reason why we shouldn't be grazing wide open spaces. What I would say, I think it just means we need a different way to direct animal movement on wide open spaces than permanent, fantastically expensive infrastructure.

>> Well, the reason the fence is gone is because we had a fire. If we don't graze that ground, more chance we're going to have more fires. So, you could argue both ways.

>> For sure. Yeah, the other one that comes to mind is recreation. Not so much in private land, but there's an awful lot of barbed wire on public land. And even just from the perspective of livestock production, it's a problem. I mean I'm -- in my limited experience with -- direct experience with this, we see people cutting fences, pushing animals, leaving gates open. Relying on the fence is problematic.

>> Yeah, absolutely. And not knowing where the cows are when they get out.

>> Right.

>> Those two things together, someone left the gate open, cut the fence and then the cows are out but they're in unfamiliar territory and --

>> Right. It might be 30 miles away.

>> Yeah. And that's a huge price. I know producers I've talked to that say, well, they got to -- that's, you know, three days of cowboy's time and that's money. And not only that but people who lose animals. Animals are expensive. To just actually have someone let the animal out, it messes up your -- rotation system you had where you're trying to do management.

>> Right.

>> The animal's gone. You got to take time to bring it back and you may not find it. And if you don't find it, that is expensive.

>> Yeah. And on public land, there's sometimes penalties associated with, you know, what would be called trespass grazing.

>> Certainly.

>> Well, let's shift into other ways of managing livestock distribution. I'm frequently reminded that there is a world outside of the United States and there were people raising livestock long before American-style ranching in the last hundred years. I know it sounds a little bit obvious, but I think it's worth saying it out loud. You know, what are the ways that domestic grazing animals were managed or directed on, you know, what I'm calling, you know, I think this is the Idaho Rangeland Center term, wild open spaces, before we had wire fence.

>> You know, we're almost reinventing something that existed in 10,000 years since we had domestic livestock and that's herding or having this personal relationship with animals.

>> Back to the future.

>> Yeah, you go the Mongolian highlands, the Maasai of Africa, these were cultures of people that really knew how to handle animals. My father-in-law had some opportunity to work in Africa and he could not believe that a young person, six, eight, 10 years old, could handle a hundred animals and stop them at the water. Even if they hadn't had water in a day or more, they could stop the whole herd there. And that's the kind of relationship that people had with animals in herding. So that's the -- that would be the gold standard. Animals, you know, living right with the humans in community. OK. Beyond that, then there is cultures in America, North and South America that were really more what we think of as herding, the cowboy culture. The, you know, the Mexican cultures in South America, Argentina, Brazil, they really knew how to handle animals, put them in a place, go back the next day. And now, we're starting to reinvent that as this new modern thing in the US like that we could really control where animals not graze, not just let them go and gather them up but really control where they graze. So, I feel like it's this old technology that's become new. And we've lost I think a lot of that art, but it's been going for thousands and thousands of years.

>> Yeah. Hope, that's probably what you thought you signed up for.

>> Yeah, a little bit.

>> When you joined the ranch crew.

>> You know, I knew fence work. It's, you know, inevitably involved. But yeah, I figured a little more cow time, a little less barbed wire time, for sure.

>> Yeah. Yeah. To your point, Karen, it does seem that there's a significant resurgence of interest in shepherding. You know, both in the -- you know, people like Fred Provenza and his counterpart I think from France, they wrote a book. I think it's just titled Shepherding which is if we can get Fred to talk about that. But there's definitely a new interest. And I think to his point, he would say that it's almost too late. We've almost lost all of the people in the world that still retain the knowledge of how that worked and what they did and what the practices were. And I think maybe we've just begun to catch it just in time.

>> Sure. And you -- I think you've talked with the Elzingas and their work with what they call inherding. So that's the idea that you really control where animals are and you keep them in the right places. And that's given them a lot of advantages to manage the ecosystem, the vegetation, keep them out where they shouldn't be and where they should be. But also know where they are when the fire comes through, know where they are if there's wolves in the area. So, I think that there is some resurgence in it, just called different things than it used to be.

>> Well, let's attempt to define what virtual fence is. People probably have a variety of things that come to mind when somebody says the term virtual fence. What would you guys say it is?

>> Well, I guess first, I'll just give you the funny -- my favorite question I've ever got when I was trying to explain virtual fence to this older gentleman. He asked me if that meant cows were walking around wearing virtual reality headsets.

>> Oh yeah?

>> So, let's just set this straight here. That's not what we're doing. I guess for a broad definition, it's any way of controlling animals without the physical barrier, that physical wire. You're using something that the animal is wearing to deliver cues and reinforcers so that you can control where they tend to be.

>> Yeah. I think that's a good general definition. You know, one of the things that I wonder is, is virtual fence a return to more flexible, natural forms of managing livestock distribution? Or is it just something that we're doing because we can like self-driving cars? You know, we're prone to chase the next technological innovation just because we can do it, not because it's a good idea.

>> I think right now, there's a lot of energy behind that. I think there's a lot of -- you, Hope, really emphasize the flexibility it will provide for us.

>> I think you have both parties in the field right now. I think there are some people who are just genuinely like, "We can do this." Like, "We got to do this." A lot of techie people are interested in it, probably more for that reason. They're not understanding the real opportunities that are there for the rest of us from this technology. But I think most of us, boots-on-the-ground people are here and are excited for that idea that we can move back to a flexible approach without all the additional labor that John was talking about. We don't have in our industry right now. We can try some of these things again without needing to pay three cowboys. We can invest in something else.

>> And it's also 1/6 effective. It's a known quantity. So, you can say it's going to cost me X amount per year to fence. Whereas if you don't have -- if you have wire or cowboys or labor, you may not know that cost.

>> Or are unwilling to think about it.

>> Well, you can put in that potential cost, right? And then hope to get by longer. Or if you lease ground, you don't know what maintenance has been done on that fence per se over time, how old the posts are. So, it's something that I look at from a bookkeeping point of view. If I can just say it's going to cost me X amount per cow to fence, if I could take that number and put it in a budget and know it's right, that would be wonderful.

>> I think you raised a good point that we don't know what that cost will be because virtual fence is what they call an improvable technology. It's going to change. Think about the first computer you got, how big it was and gangly and now my phone does way more than any -- my first computer. So, it's improvable. It's going to become lighter. It's going to become more reproducible. It's going to become cheaper.

>> And cheaper, yeah.

>> Barbed wire is not. It looks the same as it did 150 years ago and it costs a lot more. And herding, the same too, it's not an improvable technology that they've learned what they could learn and it's not going to get cheaper because the cost of people is more, the herders. So, that's one bright spot. We don't know what it's going to cost. But we know -- we're pretty darn sure it's going to get cheaper and better.

>> For sure.

>> What are some potential benefits of virtual fence? I mean, I feel like I could list a couple dozen of them off the top of my head. But I would rather not suggest those and let you describe what you think was -- what are the upsides of this and what are some potential applications?

>> I guess where to start -- I guess maybe my favorite is the idea that you can start managing very selectively. And you can have multiple objectives obtained with the same tool virtual fence within one grazing area. So you can go exclude that patch of larkspur over there. You can reduce time spent on that stream and improve some riparian habitat. You can graze more intensively over in this weed patch to do some targeted grazing there, all with the same tool. You don't have to go out and try to build three different fences for that. And the idea, you know, with riparian zones, you know, something we've talked about a lot is the idea that you can have some movement in there. So with a virtual fence, you can let animals in but you can just limit their time there. And so you can get that good beneficial, just a little bit of grazing to keep the riparian area growing, flush. We know some grazing is good. But not go to the point that you eat it down and you have soil erosion problems and things like that.

>> Hope brings up a really good point about really starting to think about fences, using it flexibly. When we talk about virtual fence, usually people think about just replacing this line on the ground that animals will not cross. But if you get past that and you start thinking about could you keep animals out of this area, most of the time, it doesn't have to be all the time. But if you, you know, kind of had that patch over there and this patch over there and you use the landscape. That's the other like let's use this hillside, let's use this road as a cue to animals that, "Oh, we don't want you over there." So, I really hope people quit thinking of it as just lines on the ground and more just as kind of areas we want to use at different levels.

>> Now, I think that is probably the biggest deal. And part of why I think it's a big deal is because there's more behind that I think than just the logistics that are possible. There was -- who was it? Was it Marshall McLuhan who said that the medium is the message? And he was mostly speaking about technology. But his point is that a medium carries with it an idea about the way the world ought to be. And I think that's true of hard fence. And I think a lot of the problems with grazing and the negative perceptions people have of grazing are related with this paradigm, I don't know a better word for it, of grazing in a fixed area that's bounded by fence. A permanent enclosure, especially one that costs something significant, you know, carries with it the idea that the animals are meant to be there and they stay there, that this is a place that exists for the purpose of providing forage for animals. You know, but other ways of doing things where grazing is more transient is a whole different kind of paradigm where grazing has a purpose, but it's not the only purpose for a place. You know, so we could spitball these applications, grazing corn stalks after harvest, grazing hay stubble, grazing giant reed and canary grass in a, you know, in a wetland, grazing a weed patch to limit seed production, grazing a 300-yard-wide fire break for 20 miles in a wildland urban interface. I mean, that list goes on and on and on and on. And people I think don't have a problem with that because you recognize that the grazing is there for a beneficial purpose and that there's a purpose to that place that isn't just generating dollars from beef.

>> And reducing the conflicts that you talked about earlier.

>> Right.

>> Keeping -- I love cows and I'm happy to camp with cows, but a lot of people that are out recreating don't really want cows in the campground. Simple solution here.

>> Right.

>> The fence, the gates that we talked about. Also the wildlife, that's a big issue. That's a big opportunity with virtual fences to reduce the wildlife impact where we want to manage livestock. And then you kind of tripped over it, but I think one of the coolest things about virtual fences is the opportunity to reunite animal and crop agriculture. We haven't been able to use -- we haven't used animals as well as we could. After-crop aftermath, crops that failed during drought, we could do that with virtual fence because people can use it more usually.

>> Well, up until the last second in world history, that was how, you know, manure was the main source of nitrogen which is the limiting factor for crop growth around the world until we invented some other ways of doing that. But now, the economics of doing that, just like the economics of creating and maintaining fence are starting to drive people back toward this -- you know, again, back to the future, integrating livestock into cropping systems. You know, one, because it is a lower cost way of managing residual and improving soil organic matter and providing at least some nitrogen even if it's not as much as you need. And the economics of that I think are a pretty big deal. We could probably -- I'm not an agronomist. They might be rolling over. But we probably don't have any agronomists listening so I think we're safe. You know, we could line up quite a few farmers who would say that has transformed some of their more marginal, particularly irrigated farm ground. I agree that's likely a major application. And a lot of those places that had fences, 75 years ago when they converted pasture land to cropland, those fences are completely gone. Not just laying down, but they're gone and they're not going to go back up again. John, you look like you were thinking. You've been in that space for some time in this intersection between livestock and cropping.

>> Well, there's certainly an awful lot of forage that's left out in the field, whether it's after-crop residue or a failed crop or lots of acres when you drive around this country. But I did have a thought that's a little side note. But here we are calling it virtual fence. And when I first started in this, I said, "Yeah, I'm going to replace this fence." And then, as I've been involved with this development with Karen and Hope, I see it's not about the fence, it's about the animal behavior. And so, I can see just a little thought here that in two generations' time, they're going to say, "Why do they call it virtual fence? What's the fence word mean?" So, I could see us changing it down the road to, you know, virtual or animal, I don't know, electronic behavior or something and we're just going to eliminate the fence. And so -- and I think that's a good point. We're not talking about a line. We're talking about animal behavior. And when you first talk to people, they focus on that fence line that that is what we're replacing. Effectively, we're not.

>> Having said that and going back to permanent fence, we, Hope and I often talk about you're always going to need a perimeter fence. So, it's not going to replace every fence in the west as much as I'd like to think, "Oh, there will be no fences in the west." You're always going to need perimeters along roads and along boundary lines. So, it does give you so much flexibility within your management unit. But I think we're always going to need that fence in case there's a solar flare or some batteries or some other technological problem goes.

>> Yeah. Yeah. John, you mentioned that Hope and Karen and you and me as well are involved in a project. Karen, you might just give a brief plug for this U of I virtual fence project so we're clear about what we're talking about.

>> Sure. The virtual fence really as an idea has been around since the early thousands when they started thinking about GPS. Being also if the animal knew where it was because of GPS, we could draw maps and when that animal got close to a boundary, they could be given some reinforcement. So that's where the idea of virtual fence came from. And myself and a few other folks were sitting around thinking just a lot about what are the options there and how could we make it really affordable, really durable. And we started thinking about why GPS because it's really heavy electronically. It takes a lot of energy and, you know, it just takes quite a bit of ingenuity and engineering part of it. And yet we started thinking about radio waves. I mean, radio has been around a long time. There's satellites that left the solar system and we're still in contact with Earth because of radio waves. So we started thinking about that low, low, really well-proven technology of going to some really well-known radio waves as a way to increase durability and decrease money. And the other thing that we started thinking about is how can we make it really in concert with animal physiology? And one of the early studies that we did, Hope and I and some other students, is we just took electric dog collars essentially and we put them on the ear, the nose and the neck. And we found out the ear is twice as sensitive as the neck. So you can use half as much charge to stimulate an animal on the ear than the neck. So then, we went this route of using really low-tech radio waves with beacons, on-the-ground beacons. Not going to satellites. Not communicating back to coffee shops where people are sitting with computers managing their fence line. But just really simple beacon to a cow ear tag. And so, our system is all based on how simple can you get, how much can you take away and still have a viable system.

>> Yeah. And I've heard some criticism of that in that it's too simple, too primitive, won't work. But I think this is part of what we're saying. This is the very beginning of the concept. And the concept is even broader than replacing fence lines, as John just said. You know, we're trying to rethink, in the absence of permanent fence-like barbed wire, what are some useful ways to manage livestock distribution? And there could be quite a few things. I mean, just in the couple of years that we've been talking about this project, you know, there are ear tags that just give you location data on an animal. And a lot of ranchers would say, "If I just knew where they were, I don't need the thing on their ear to tell them where to go. If I just knew where they were, it would save me five days trying to clean a Forest Service pasture." And then you might have, to that point too, you know, one common application and this is part of what you're trying to get at with this U of I project is, you know, what are the things that people actually need? And if one of the things that they might need is just keeping animals out of a bubble, you know, some relatively discrete exclusion zone like a riparian area or a riparian area just for two months in the middle of the grazing, maybe not even all the time. But could that be accomplished with something that doesn't cost quite so much as a full-on control system which is a pretty cool technology that I think will have lots of applications as well. But there's a whole spectrum and probably more than one spectrum. And we've got more than one axis here of functions of these new technologies and what they could do and cost structures. Hope, as part of that project, you've been doing some investigation on what is good for the animal. How do they respond to various stimuli? And I think that's something that sort of gets lost when everybody's just, you know, jumping in head first, not even feet first into this stuff.

>> I would agree. Something I've said a lot is I think a lot of other people, a lot of these companies have just found what worked and figured, "OK, this works. This must be the best. Let's just roll with that." The luxury we've had with starting from the ground and building our own technology is that we have complete control. So, we can play around with, "OK, how do different audio cues affect animal response? How does the timing of those audio cues affect animal response?" We're starting to look at how much visual cues might enhance either the speed that animals learn to interact with the system or their overall compliance with the system. So, you know, not necessarily a big deal on huge landscapes. You might not need visual cues then. But going back to like this is really small, fine scale application, the riparian zones, noxious weeds that, you know, you don't want your cows in.

>> You got paired cues.

>> You can have these paired cues and maybe that makes it just that much more effective and you can get away with, yeah, what we're hoping will ultimately be a cheaper system and it will be economically viable even for those small-scale applications.

>> Yeah. And let me clarify this. The systems that are commercially available today are wonderful. They're fancy. You can -- if you can work on a computer, you can put lines on the computer. They're not posts and wire. They have the ability to -- I mean, I've talked to people that say, "I was away for Christmas and I moved my cows from one bale to the next, you know, without having to go home and do it." So they replaced that need for sort of physical labor and going out. Our project at the University of Idaho and WSU, a few of us got together and we decided what we wanted was a ruggedly simple product. And that meant that maybe there was going to be some animal -- some labor. People might have to go out and put a ribbon on a post and say, "Hey, you were forbidden from going in here to the cow. Give them some signals for that." Also, you probably have to go out and change the beacon once in a while. You can't do it through a satellite system on a computer in a coffee shop. And so, I don't think we'll ever compete with the companies that are moving ahead with the GPS system. But we will be a lower cost system that's really reliable and you're using your own labor. One of our advisors on that group said, on this research project said she's really excited that it's going to reunite people with the land and their animals. Because you can't just get on a computer and draw a line, you actually have to go out and look at the land and know the land and know the cows to make this ruggedly simple system that we envision work. But simple things can be done like keeping animals out of -- poisonous plants, patches, gates, virtual gates. That was your idea, John, the idea of a virtual gate. And now, we're trying to figure out how do you tell the cows the gate is open? So, there's a lot in animal behavior we still have to learn about how to communicate with the animal. This is open for you. This is accessible to you. These other places are not. So that's where the animal behavior and physiology come in and making the system really reliable. I might also say, if you can clip this in somewhere, that our project was sponsored by the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture. So, it was USDA that sponsored us to start looking at this revolutionary new way of looking at virtual fence.

>> Yeah, I think it's important. I feel like it's -- I don't know, maybe the elephant in the room is Vence. And I've been in a lot of meetings with Vence reps and ranchers that are using it and have seen lots of demonstrations and it's quite impressive. And, you know, to their credit, somebody somewhere and I think now it's Merck Animal Health sees a future in this. And so they're putting money into it. And somebody had to take the risk to be the first thing on the market. And you don't improve your product unless you start using it and let people use it in real-world applications and then respond from there. So, you know, they and others are right smack in the middle of, you know, nearly the most rapid phase of product development and revision right now. And I think during that period of time, you know, we're all going to discover what are the different applications that are useful. And I suspect there will be probably a more useful diversity of patents on virtual fence systems than the number of barbs and the shape of the crimp on the end and how fast the twist rate is on the barbed wire. I suspect we're going to get there. John, you've been quiet. I'm thinking that there's some other indirect benefits from things like virtual fence. You know, one of the things that's come to mind to me is that if you had some location data on animals, for example, you could tell which bull wasn't doing any work, for example. Or the cows that never leave the creek bottom, you could get rid of them or keep them home next year instead of sending them to the mountain. What are some potential benefits that are maybe somewhat separate from just replacing barbed wire?

>> Well, as you say, data is huge. And every year, we look back at previous records and see how many animals we had in a certain area and then response time for the pasture the next year. And so, that data has a huge amount of value if you can put your hands on it and understand it. It's just not notes in a notebook. And so having it, if it's digital, if it can be converted to digital and you can use it in spreadsheets or have it logs into another --

>> Visualize it.

>> Visualize it. Or you can somehow tie it with some of these grazing programs and tie in that data, then it has even more value. So, any amount of data is valuable if you can access it and use it. As I say, it's not just written on the back of a napkin.

>> Yeah, I suspect that will be one of the side effects of this is data collection. You know, with the devices that are paired with animal sensors where you can add a sensor at low cost. I don't know. I have mixed feelings about it. I don't particularly like the idea of including cows in the Internet of Things. On the other hand, I think there would be some useful applications to that.

>> Yeah. Two others that we've come across and ranchers that we've talked with is certainly the animal health. The dairies are way ahead of us with using airborne devices to know which animal is sick, which one is cycling, etcetera. So, some of that could come in the future to a device on the range. And the other is understanding the predator-livestock relationships. If there was a way to warn a producer that, "Oh, my gosh, these animals started going at a really incredible speed. They started moving out," that's a sign to a producer. So that's going back to your idea about data. It's in real time in many cases.

>> Yeah, it could be, for sure. Yeah.

>> And so you might be able to go out and say, "Oh, what's going on?" Or at least see if there was a wolf that ate a cow and you can prove it. You can know that's a problem. Otherwise, you find a dead animal and you don't always know what happened. So I think that, looking and identifying the challenges in your operation, whether it'd be health, predation, disease, other things, yeah. Well, we always said that when you put a herd into a pasture, they'll eat the easy stuff first or the -- and so if you could locate those animals and you can watch them. When you see them in a certain part of the range, you say now, "Why are they there?" So, is it because they were pushed there or is it because they're out of feed somewhere else? And this place might be, you know, two hours from the home place and it gives you the ability to look. And so you know what? We probably need to go check on those. Something's different from last year. Yeah.

>> Yeah. A number of ranchers have said you could spend a lot of time trying to chase the cows you can't find. Or even, you know, even in situations where a person is paying pretty close attention to where the animals are, like this is not the Columbus method where somebody kicked him through the gate in April and they're going to come back in November. You know, these are people that are paying pretty close attention to their animals. But still, you could have 20 cows, you know, squirt out of a hole in the fence that just got run over by a herd of elk. And you could spend a lot of time trying to find those animals and know when you are.

>> Well, and by the time you find out, how did you find, you know, how did you find out? Because they were 20 miles up the highway.

>> Right. Somebody else saw them because they're a long way from where you left them.

>> Exactly.

>> Yeah.

>> Yeah. When I was growing up, my dad would say, "Hey, Karen, will you go check the cows? They're out in the north pasture." And checking the cows was easy. Finding the cows was hard. So, I think it was just a way to get rid of me for a while. But that was 90% of the job was finding the cows. And even though we were in pretty level country in North Dakota, it was pretty easy to find cows. But still, it's hard to find them, so.

>> I think I want to close this out with a brief discussion about targeted grazing. We alluded to it in the beginning. But here again, I think it is a fundamental thing. And it goes all the way back to the conversation that we had, Karen, the very first episode of The Art of Range about grazing fundamentals in that we have the ability. And I would certainly say we have the responsibility to determine, I think I've said a couple of times on here, Barry [inaudible] likes to say that grazing is a verb, not a noun. And we need to control the action of the verb. And, you know, it's not a fixed thing. We have to think about and direct the timing and the duration and the intensity, the density of animals, the frequency of grazing, the length of the regrowth period in order to direct the direct and indirect effects of the grazing animal on whatever the plant community and landscape is. You know, those -- the obvious effects are, you know, partial defoliation of a plant, some impact of hooves on the ground which can be positive or negative and manure deposition. And all of those things, like most of the really good things in life are good and extremely useful when they're inside of some healthy range. You know, we could talk about food and drink and sex and they're all really good things. But when they're misused, they're some of the most destructive things. And, you know, as we said up until a hundred years ago, manure was the main source of nitrogen. But if you have too much of it in one place, it's bad. There's problems. I don't think that's all that complicated or nuanced, actually. So, you know, grazing for a while in a particular spot at a particular time for a particular purpose is usually good. And I think -- I actually think that this has the potential. It feels like the sky's the limit here to show what can be done with directed livestock grazing for a whole host of purposes, some of which we've already talked about. I think the -- I think targeted grazing, my feeling is that, you know, 10 years from now, the agency person will be coming to John to say, "Can you get 400 mother cows out here to, you know, graze this spot where I want to reduce fire risk," because we can do that in a way that has no negative effect whatsoever on a plant community and significantly reduces things like wildfire risk. And I feel like we're at least in the range line ecology community just beginning to come to grips with the fact that we've -- we can't be quite so like a days ago about wildfire. And, of course, you know, there's all the ripple effects on infrastructure and the wild and urban interface. And that's just one example. But it's one that I think is a really, really big one of using livestock for a purpose where you want them here for three days, not living here for six months. And we could do that.

>> I think that you've mentioned several of them. The wildfire risk is so real. And the fact that you could use livestock right in the urban interface is also really exciting. So that one is probably one of the really low-hanging fruits that I think we can accomplish with target -- with the virtual fence and targeted grazing combined. You also mentioned weeds. There's just a plethora of ways that we can use the timing and density of animals to reduce invasive plants. I'm really excited about what -- if we open up the door, how about restoration? How about you got a patch of ventenata? You're going to control it. That's really expensive. But in order to keep the ventenata out, you have to have plants there and it's really rocky and you can't put a drill across it. What if you could put some seeds out there and some little hooves from animals and dense -- and really in that dense air plus the manure? So, we don't use livestock very often in restoration, but we sure could. We could also use it more with, we talked already about cropping systems and but also grazing is a good way to reduce some of that herbaceous biomass between trees, whether they're orchards or plantations. So, I think the sky is the limit. I'm excited about when we can get to the plant -- the area where we're using livestock very carefully to restore or reinvigorate ecosystems.

>> We talked earlier about the cost of fence and in relationship to the production of the ground. And a perimeter fence is so many miles, so many acres. But when you start doing cross-fencing, you don't actually increase your acreage. And so that cost of fence is quite a bit more. And if you are managing different areas at different times, that cross-fence may be needed on this particular line in the spring. But in the fall, it might be needed somewhere else. And now, you've got the cost of two cross-fences. So to do a good job of managing with cross-fencing is extremely expensive. And so, I just wanted to bring that back. And we're not just talking about a perimeter fence. The cross-fencing is a huge expense.

>> Yeah. John, I think I'll give you the final word. You come from the land of grazing innovations. We still call electric fence around here, people call it New Zealand fence. We've got New Zealand cedars, New Zealand grass varieties. I have -- I'm not quite sure, I talked about this event with Thomas Maxwell and I don't remember what his answer was. But somehow it seems like there's a lot of stuff that comes out of a really remote, small piece of rock in the Southern Hemisphere. But so you come from New Zealand and you're a fencing contractor. What are your concluding thoughts about virtual fence?

>> Oh, I think, OK, there is a big difference between the American West and the productive grazing lands of New Zealand. And so, one of it's the soil and the weather but there's also the seasons. So, New Zealand can almost grow grass year round. And so that's -- and it's really doesn't seem like a big thing at first, but that makes -- that's a huge difference.

>> Right. The density of forage permits more investment in usage.

>> Well, you don't have that winter cost, right? So you're not using half of your land, putting it in a bale so you can feed for half the year. So there's some -- they become huge. They seemed like small hurdles, but they're huge deals when it comes to profitability. And from a cultural point of view, the Kiwi farmer, the New Zealand farmers are quick to adopt. One I noticed here -- when I first came over here and I have a new idea and I would go up against a third-generation cowboy and talk to him about it, it's like, "No, that's just not the way we do it. This is cultural thing." And at first, personally, I struggled with it. And now, I actually take pride in the fact that these guys have been doing this for years and years and years. And so, there's going to be that hurdle. We talk about 10% of farmers tend to be early adopters. And then there's a bunch that they look over the fence, excuse the pun, but look over the fence and watch for many years and then they switch. And then there's people that will never switch. But the American rancher doesn't necessarily have a good name in the city or the cattle, the cattle side of things. We're supposedly polluting the environment. Apparently, we're causing climate change. There's all sorts of negativity out there. And if we are going to sell a positive story moving forward, it may need something. You know, having the virtual fence saying, "This is going to -- this is the new technology that's going to -- even though we could probably manage without it or we are, there's places where we're doing a really good job without it, it's going to be harder to sell the story." So this could be a platform that we could use to sell, you know, better management because I do believe that done right, cows, livestock grazing will improve the environment as opposed to, if it's done correctly. And of course, we don't -- we never see that in the -- they always show the bad, right? And --

>> And I think we'll have some partners in that messaging. There was a relatively recent article in The New York Times written by Michelle Nijhuis who's with High Country News. And High Country News is not necessarily a publication that is always friendly to domestic livestock. But she was speaking quite positively about the potential benefits. You know, not just the, I guess the negative benefits of not having cows in places where they shouldn't be, but the potential benefits of being able to direct their grazing activity like we've been describing in ways that are ecologically useful. And to your point again, I'm prone to come at this, you know, from the livestock production perspective as opposed to the, you know, how do we manage, for example, large public lands responsibly? And some people might reasonably say, "Well, why are we talking about trying to put cows everywhere?" Well, I'm not sure we are. But, you know, to that point, I would also say those agencies are trying to figure out what to do with budgets, limited budgets where they have real environmental problems. And, you know, do you send a helicopter out with a herbicide spray? Or do we see if we can accomplish that with livestock likely at a fraction of the cost and in a way that provides, you know, some real benefit to society and to a local economy, aside from just paying a herbicide applicator, nothing against herbicide applicators. But I do think that -- I don't particularly like -- I realized we can talk about grazing as a tool, but I think it's a little bit, I don't know, I don't particularly like that term. Nevertheless, they are -- they can be used to direct vegetation and species composition and soil health and nutrient cycle at the plant so interface and wildfire risk and all kinds of things. And I think it would be irresponsible to not think about how we can use this in a way that's synergistic that, you know, that has benefits without negative effects.

>> And an approach that we can use on the large Western landscapes that you talked about, John, we can sure use it in small settings like targeted grazing. But what do you use on an allotment that is 10,000 acres large? You don't have many choices. And this is a new technology that is going to allow us to manage those landscapes for the good to really make them productive ecologically and productive for livestock production. It's a win-win.

>> Yeah. You know, something like a 40,000-acre federal grazing permit, you might be able to put together a small fortune to make a herbless application once if that was going to, you know, redirect plant succession in a way that was beneficial. But it's maybe not possible even once. And it's certainly not possible annually which in many cases with weeds, that's what would be necessary if we don't come up with a different way to do it. And I think it's a good message to the public of using livestock instead of herbicides. I'm not a chicken little about herbicide, but they are expensive and they're useful on crops. But I don't think they have -- the cost's just prohibited from having much of a place on wild open spaces and livestock certainly do.

>> Totally agree. If you think about the state of California now and in the rural areas, you have they call it defensible space. And you are now -- you have to have a defensible space around your house. We have to mow. That actually come the state, it's Cal Fire. I can't remember the -- Cal Fire? They actually come and they inspect your house once a year and you get a sticker. If you're not home, you get a sticker on the door saying you passed or you didn't pass. So, having that, if you said to someone you have to mow that hundred yards around your house every year or you could put some livestock on it, for instance, everyone -- that makes sense to everybody that you could graze a defensible space. But take it to the next level and maybe we take some of the fuel load out of the areas around towns or that sort of stuff.

>> Yeah, the possibilities are endless. And I sincerely look forward to figuring out what some of those possibilities are with all of you and other people that are in the middle of thinking about this. There have recently been some articles in the Rangeland Ecology Management Journal about virtual fence. There will be a special issue in the Rangelands Journal about virtual fence. There's a lot of companies trying to come up with better ways and more cost-effective ways of deploying virtual fence in a way that's useful to ranchers. And I'd like to thank all of you for what you're doing to make that go.

>> It's been a great pleasure. It's going to be fun.

>> Yeah, much appreciated.

>> Thanks for joining us. Thank you for listening to the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

>> The views, thoughts and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University's endorsement.

Mentioned Resources

University of Idaho virtual fence grant project website, and recent article about simplified virtual fence concepts.

Recent New York Times article on virtual fence by Michelle Nijhuis

Rangeland Ecology & Management article: Using Virtual Fencing to Create Fuel Breaks in the Sagebrush Steppe (July 2023)

Rangeland Ecology & Management Synthesis Paper: Targeted Livestock Grazing: Prescription for Healthy Rangelands

Society for Range Management Targeted Grazing training

Current manufacturers of virtual fence systems include (list not comprehensive): VenceGallagherNoFence

Tracker tag options include: 701X, mOOvement, GSAT Solar

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