Some Eagle County ranchers use virtual fences

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About 2,000 cattle are confined this summer by virtual fences.
Eagle County Soil Conservation District/courtesy photo

Ranchers have long used public lands to graze cattle. This year, several local breeders are using new technologies to better control the movements of these animals.

The Eagle County Soil Conservation Service, in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service, started a three-year pilot program using equipment from a company called Vence. This equipment helps herders better contain animals and can virtually fence these animals in specific areas. This means keeping animals out of areas that have recently burned or out of riparian areas.

While the grant-funded project is in its early stages, Clayton Gerard, whose family has a long history of raising cattle near Gypsum, sees the system’s potential.



Gerard said the system needed a number of improvements and farmers had a lot to learn. But he added, “It’s going to be a pretty cool tool.”

Gerard said a rancher can actually use the system to lead animals to where they need to be. A user can construct a virtual rectangle, Gerard said. Then, by moving the back side of the rectangle, the animals can move to another area.



How it works

Vence’s system uses base stations to communicate with collared animals. The collars give the animals a slight shock if they try to cross the boundary of the virtual enclosure.

Gerard said that when an animal exited the pen, for example, if a cow lashed out at a wayward calf, the system would allow the animals to re-enter the pen smoothly from the collars.

Gerard said cattle are already getting used to the system.



Moving animals efficiently can benefit the rest of an ecosystem.

Soil Conservation Service district manager Laura Bohannon said the Vence system can in theory move animals from one plot to another, preventing overgrazing on a site and avoiding damage to the beds of streams and other riparian areas.

The system being evaluated in Eagle County is called “Prescribed Pasture Management”. Using virtual fencing, ranchers can graze a specific area one year and then rest that patch the next season.

There are 10 of these virtual fence base stations throughout Eagle County, covering approximately 500,000 acres.
Eagle County Soil Conservation Service/courtesy photo

Kristy Wallner of the Bureau of Land Management said the agency started the pilot project and then worked with other agencies to secure funding and participants.

Wallner said at this point about 500,000 acres are basically fenced and about 2,000 cattle are wearing collars. Another 800 cattle are collared near Silt.

A commitment to the territory

Participating in the program takes commitment, Wallner said.

Ultimately, the system could be good for producers, animals and the soil.

Wallner noted that grazing animals help disturb the soil, allowing bacteria and fungi to break down carbon in the soil.

Soil with a little added bacteria can also help prevent erosive runoff from storms.

Wallner said increasing organic matter in soil by just 1% can increase soil’s ability to hold water 10 times.

“Having animals on land is so important,” Bohannon said, adding that it’s important to manage these animals in the best interest of the ecosystem.

But Eagle County’s high desert soil is slowly adapting. This is why Gérard wants the pilot program to be extended beyond three years. “It takes longer than that to change the soil,” he said.

Gerard added that virtual fencing could solve the problems that arise when breeding and recreation collide.

People who hike or mountain bike often don’t close livestock gates, he said. Other users are campaigning for the removal of fences on the public domain. Managing with virtual fences takes care of both of these issues.

About 2,000 Eagle County cattle wear collars that keep them contained in virtual fences.
Eagle County Soil Conservation Service/courtesy photo

Wallner said she expects the Vence technology to improve over time. Noting the advancements in cellphones, she said: “People are talking about the technology that is out there. But next year’s collars are supposed to be half the size (of current collars). Soon we may not even need base stations.

“The point is, we have to start,” she added. “We don’t know all the answers. We don’t even know all the questions. But we have to start. »

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