The term “precision agriculture” is often associated with crop farming or intensive agriculture systems such as the dairy industry. There is growing interest, however, in applying similar concepts to cattle ranching in extensive landscapes. Precision ranching involves the use of technologies such as smart-sensors to allow for automated monitoring or task completion (Precision Ranching 2020), and ultimately more precise and efficient management of animals and the ranching operation.
A lot can happen on a ranch – a water tank can malfunction, cattle can escape, an animal might become sick or injured, animals might consistently overuse one portion of a pasture causing degradation while underutilizing other areas, to name just a few. Being able to monitor conditions in real time means that problems can be quickly identified and addressed before they escalate.
While enhanced monitoring is one application of precision ranching technologies, other applications, such as virtual fencing can be used to actively modify or manipulate livestock movement. In rangelands that include ecologically sensitive areas, keeping cattle out of an area might be as much of a priority as keeping them in a given part of the pasture. Virtual fencing allows for both, as well as passive gathering or herding of cattle from one location to another by repeatedly adjusting the boundaries until the cattle are where a manager wants them to be.
Despite these exciting applications, use of precision ranching technology in extensive rangelands is still in the early stages (Precision Ranching 2020) and there are still challenges and unknowns.
The Sustainable Southwest Beef Project (SSBP) has partnered with five ranches in four states (California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah) to test a suite of devices for precision ranching. The ranchers are provided with ultrasonic water-level sensors, GPS collars, “smart” rain gauges, and virtual fence collars. An integrated dashboard application allows managers to check the status of water tanks/troughs, how much rain was recorded at each of the automated rain gauges, and the location of each collared animal. The virtual fence collars connect to a separate smartphone app. The hope is that these devices will lead to improved ranching efficiency and sustainability.
- Being able to remotely check rain gauges, water level sensors, and current cattle locations may mean fewer trips to distant locations on the ranch, and less time spent looking for cattle. This might translate into both improved operational efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from less driving (Precision Ranching 2020).
- On-screen visualizations show where the cattle have been spending most of their time, and virtual fence boundaries can be changed in a matter of minutes. This might help producers adapt to environmental challenges exacerbated by climate change by allowing for more targeted and responsive grazing management.
- Ranch managers and/or hands can better plan their day by knowing before they head out where there might be problems that need to be addressed. This could lead to higher efficiency as well as better outcomes for ranchers, cattle, and ecosystems.
These and other speculated benefits, however, need to be verified on the ground. Over the next few years, NMSU and USDA-ARS researchers will collect data on how precision ranching technologies affect each ranch in six areas: land and water health, atmospheric health, production abundance and quality, financial stability, human health, and social cohesion. The SSBP is also planning to gather qualitative information from the ranchers on their experiences with the technology, including the time and effort required to learn how to use it. This information is intended to support thoughtful decisions for producers and agencies when considering precision ranching.
References: Sustainable Southwest Beef Project. (2020). Precision Ranching. Las Cruces, NM. http://southwestbeef.org/wp-content/uploads/twopager_precisionranching_final_508.pdf