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Opening the gate to virtual fencing

Progressive Forage Editor Joy Hendrix Published on 13 August 2019
cows grazing

The constant trade-off between time and money management is a never-ending battle for producers. Fencing can be a particularly tough decision on whether to spend more money on materials or spend the long, hard hours fixing something that will inevitably be knocked down again.

A team of researchers at the University of Idaho is working on a new option for producers by eliminating the fence completely. 

Karen Launchbaugh, professor of rangeland ecology and director of the University of Idaho Rangeland Center, has been interested in virtual fencing since the 1990s, she says. Launchbaugh, along with a team of students and professors, now has the opportunity to explore the possibilities virtual fencing has to offer.

Virtual fencing systems for dogs are commercially available and have been in use for quite some time, Launchbaugh says, but the idea of implementing the technology for livestock presents its own set of challenges. In the system used for dogs, the animal wears a collar that emits a slight shock when the dog approaches the boundary line, signaling for the dog to move away from the line. The system is most effective for smaller areas and often includes a buried line to indicate the boundary area.

For livestock, the goal of virtual fencing is to decrease fencing costs on open rangelands, Launchbaugh said. 

“Dean Anderson was the first person I know of with the idea of using GPS location to set the virtual fence,” Launchbaugh says.

To implement a GPS system, the animal would still wear some type of device to emit a small shock when the animal was too close to the boundary, but instead of having a line buried underground, the system would use GPS coordinates to set the boundary. 

At the University of Idaho, the focus of this research is to explore options for producers looking for more reliable and simpler solutions to fencing on open rangelands. Vast areas that would be costly to fence entirely could be made cheaper by the “off the shelf” virtual fencing option they are trying to create. 

For smaller producers, a fenceless boundary system could open up grazing options for animals to graze around irrigation equipment and potentially allow animals to graze the area directly under a pivot without harming the equipment.

Launchbaugh says an advantage of her research is the diverse team they have put together to contribute to this project. The team consists of herself; Gordon Murdoch, animal physiologist in University of Idaho animal and veterinary science department; Jason Karl, rangeland ecologist in the University of Idaho forest, rangeland and fire sciences department; and Mohamed Hefeida, communication engineer in University of Idaho electrical and computer engineering department. In addition to the four professors, Zane Garner, University of Idaho beef center manager, four graduate students and five undergraduate students are also actively involved in developing research for this project.

“What’s cool about virtual fence is it takes knowledge about animals and animal behavior,” Launchbaugh says, “but it also takes knowledge of electronics and engineering.” With the background of each member of the team, they can provide expertise on both areas needed. 

“We are doing some research on animal behavior as well as the location and amount of shock to find something very low energy,” Launchbaugh says. Along with finding the optimal place with the lowest energy required to emit the shock, the team is researching if audio and visual cues play a role in indicating to the animal they have reached the boundary. 

There are currently a few commercial systems being established for virtual fence, some in cattle or for other grazing animals such as goats. Launchbaugh says she expects to see more commercially available systems for sale in the next five years, some with even more advanced capabilities, like the ability to detect and transmit the temperature of the animal to the producer in real time.

The team is just wrapping up its first year of research in what hopes to be a project that will go on for at least another decade because with every new discovery that is made, new questions are posed. The example Launchbaugh provided came from a producer who asked, “How do you open the gate and signal to cattle that it is OK to move if there isn’t a physical gate to open?” 

For now, the team is starting small, doing research on pastures and learning limitations in a smaller setting before expanding to rangeland, but with new technology and the amount of excitement behind this project, the possibilities are endless.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

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