In 1874, Joseph Glidden's product was proclaimed to be, "lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, and cheaper than dust." Plains Indians called it, "the Devil's rope" and homesteaders used it to protect their claims. The "it" is barbed wire.
During westward expansion, thousands of miles of barbed-wire fence were put up to either define grazing allotments or protect farmland from free-ranging cattle. Initially, cowboys hated seeing "their" open range restricted by fences or when their cattle got wounds from the sharp barbs. Others embraced the ability to fence private lands or enclose public land for their own purposes. Nowadays, barbed-wire fences crisscross the western landscape, and though efficient at managing livestock movement, it's costly to replace—to the tune of $18,000-20,000 per mile.
But there's new technology on the horizon to reduce this expense.
Virtual fencing is the newest technology to hit the ranching scene. The system incorporates GPS technology and stimuli collars worn by livestock. Similar to the concept of invisible fences for dogs, minus the buried wire, the collars produce a warning sound or electrical cue to an animal if it's too close to a virtual fenceline created by the rancher on their smartphone or computer.
"We saw this coming down the pike over four years ago," said David Bohnert, Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center director and professor in Burns. "Virtual fencing isn't a novel concept but a process that's been around for a long time. It's just that technology has now caught up to the concept, making it a bit more feasible."
Portable cell phone towers, about 20 feet tall and powered by solar panels, are installed on the range to communicate the fence boundary and livestock locations back to the rancher. The rancher uses herd management software developed by the San Diego-based company VENCE to create virtual pastures and to track animals.
"It takes three days to a week for the cattle to get used to the audio and visual clues," said Bohnert. "The rancher puts them in a smaller area that is manageable and has an attractant like feed or water and then moves the virtual fence in around them." The animals learn fairly quickly that the auditory clue will be followed by an electrical shock if they don't respect the boundary.
Conservation Northwest, a wildlands and wildlife advocacy group based in Washington, is involved in several projects in Okanogan County such as the Tunk Valley Project.
"The rancher can sit home and build fence day in and day out for a fraction of the cost for what it costs to put real hard fencing on the ground," said Jay Kehne, Conservation Northwest's sagelands program lead. That project covers about 60,000 acres and has about 280 cow/calf pairs with over 50 miles of virtual fence on 13 pastures. The total cost, under $40,000 for the virtual fencing, would be equivalent to building 2 to 3 miles of new hard fence. The concept of being able to constantly move cattle across the range reduces overgrazing and soil erosion.
"Another big advantage is you can have inclusionary fences and exclusionary fences," said Kehne. "You can exclude animals from getting into riparian areas, wolf dens, sharp-tailed or sage-grouse leks and other sensitive areas." The virtual fencing also allows for wildlife movement across the landscape without having to encounter hazards associated with barbed wire fencing.
"The best wildlife-friendly fence is no fence at all," said Kehne.
Kehne's group is spreading the word amongst ranchers or cattlemen's associations as to the benefits and issues behind virtual fencing. "It spreads by word of mouth," added Kehne. "Some of the folks that we've been helping want to show their neighbors how it works."
To better address the producer's reaction to virtual fencing, Bohnert said that next year a grad student will look at the societal impacts to better understand reasons why ranchers would be hesitant to explore this technology.
Virtual fencing won't replace exterior fencing, such as along roadways or dividing some allotments, but it is another tool in the toolbox for herd management.
"It's not perfect; it's not an iron gate," said Bohnert. "You've got to train the cattle and set the system up to be successful, but right now, with some of the things we're learning, I think it has a lot of potential."