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Virtual Fencing Excludes Cattle from Burned Areas in Sagebrush Steppe

Rangeland scientists at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center (EOARC) tested whether virtual fencing could prevent cattle from grazing recently burned areas within sagebrush steppe pastures. Because changes in climate are expected to increase fire frequency in sagebrush steppe, ranchers and rangeland managers will need new, cost-effective methods of separating cattle from burned areas on public rangelands. Virtual fencing presents a compelling climate change adaptation option.


Reading Time | 6 minutes

Management Goals | Exclude cattle from recently burned sagebrush steppe to allow for vegetation recovery

Audience | Ranchers, Rangeland Managers, Extension

Project Lead & Contact Info | Chad Boyd chad.boyd@usda.gov; Rory O’Connor; Juliana Ranches; David Bohnhert

Project Area | Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center near Burns, OR

Agency | USDA Agricultural Research Service and Oregon State University

Sagebrush steppe rangelands
Sagebrush steppe rangelands consist primarily of sagebrush, perennial bunch grasses, and annual grasses, including invasive cheatgrass and medusa head. Credit: USDA NRCS

Burned areas often have a wealth of new, young plants which are particularly appealing to livestock as forage. However, these young plants can also be sensitive to disturbance from activities like grazing. Disturbance during stages of early development can lead to increased soil erosion and a reduction in native plant species in sagebrush steppe. Proper management of rangeland plants helps to slow the spread of invasive annual grasses and risk of wildfire.

In the public rangelands of the western United States, cattle are typically excluded from burned sagebrush steppe pastures for two years after a fire to protect sensitive plants and soil. If only a portion of a pasture burns, the burned area can be fenced, allowing for continued grazing in unburned areas. However, pastures in this region can include thousands of acres, and ranchers may find themselves with limited access to a leased pasture and limited ability to fence large swaths of rangeland. Traditional wire-based fencing is expensive, can impede other management objectives, and can be complicated to implement. Virtual fencing is a compelling alternative.

Rangeland scientists Chad Boyd and Rory O’Connor of the USDA Agricultural Research Service and Juliana Ranches and David Bohnert of Oregon State University formed the EOARC team for this project. The EOARC team evaluated the use of a virtual fence for excluding cattle from burned areas within small pastures in the sagebrush steppe of southeast Oregon, near Burns. Virtual fencing uses satellite-connected collars to contain livestock within geographic positioning system (GPS) coordinates controlled by a rancher or land manager. Livestock are contained using auditory cues (beeps) and electrical pulses, much like those used in a dog shock collar. Gateways, or GPS base stations, use cellular communication to link to the end user, and communicate with the collars via low frequency radio transmissions, allowing producers to see their livestock in real time.

Climate Change Impacts of Concern

Climate models suggest the Great Basin is expected to become drier, which in association with climate change, is expected to increase highly flammable invasive annual grasses, like cheatgrass. Boyd associated an increase in invasive annual grasses with “more fire going forward." In response to increased fire frequency and intensity, ranchers and land managers will need to address post-fire impacts. With fewer obstacles than traditional fencing, virtual fencing could allow cattle to graze on unburned lands while giving recently burned areas time to recover.

Traditional fencing can also heighten wildlife stress, particularly in pronghorn, who are already heavily impacted by the effects of climate change, including drought, higher temperatures, and wildfire. Virtual fencing could help to mitigate wildlife stress by removing some fences from the landscape and increasing wildlife mobility.

Implementation

Two photos of virtual fencing examples. In one, a virtual fencing collar is held up. In the other, a woman draws blood from a cow's neck to test stress response to collaring.
(Left) A graduate student from OSU draws the blood of a cow to test stress response to the collaring process. (Right) A virtual fencing collar. Credit: Morgan Lawrence, USDA

The team began the study by prescribed burning 0.6-ha in six adjacent 2.1-ha pastures in a Wyoming big sagebrush plant community in 2019. In June 2020, all the cows in the study were fitted with virtual fencing collars. Cows were placed into a catch chute, where members of the EOARC team outfitted the cows with a collar and drew blood to monitor for stress. For four days following the collaring, the cows were trained to respond to cues within a small, traditionally fenced pasture. The limits of the virtual fence are set narrower than the fenced limits of the pasture, so cows can become accustomed to the cues of the virtual fencing collar

The cows were then brought to their corresponding sagebrush steppe pastures. Each pasture was stocked with three mature, calf-less cows for 14 days. The collars were programed to create a virtual fence around a burned area within three of the pastures, while the remaining pastures had the collar cues turned off for a control group of cows. The collars recorded animal location every five minutes (though they can be set to different timescales depending upon management needs).

Outcomes

Cows in the control pastures that did not receive cues from the collars initially spent up to 40% of their time within the burned area. Nearly 70% of the plants in the burned area were grazed by the control cows. However, cows in the virtual fencing treatment pastures spent approximately 4% of their time in the burned area on day one and were recorded in the burned area only a few times after. Less than 3% of the plants in the burned area were grazed by cows in the virtual fencing treatment group.

This trial suggests virtual fencing technology is effective in controlling cattle movements across sagebrush steppe rangelands and can effectively limit the grazing of sensitive burned areas. Virtual fencing could provide land managers and ranchers an option to access unburned areas within burned pastures on public rangelands, while allowing for the restoration of burned areas.

Challenges and Opportunities

Three people set up a gateway, including tower, solar panel, and truck trailer.
Members of the EOARC team set up a "gateway," or GPS base station, near the study site. Credit: Morgan Lawrence, USDA

According to Boyd, “One of the logistical issues is getting the collars on the cows…It’s something else on the to-do list of already very busy producers.” Purchasing the GPS base station equipment can also be an expensive upfront cost. However, Boyd encouraged producers to “weigh the cost against the lost opportunity cost of grazing” in the event of a burn on leased, public rangeland. However, in Boyd's opinion, virtual fencing has few negatives.

Virtual fencing is not for everyone. Boyd maintains that because it is a new technology, it might be a difficult adjustment for some producers or rangeland managers. However, he believes that with time and research, ranchers and rangeland managers will adjust to the new technology.

The opportunities associated with virtual fencing are far-reaching and only beginning to be explored. One of Boyd's favorite features is that producers "can see cows in nearly real time from their smartphone, tablet, or computers," so long as the collars retain contact with the GPS base stations. Even if cows are in a location with limited connection to the base station, which can happen in hilly or rocky terrain, the technology continues to keep cows contained within GPS limits set by producers.

Boyd notes that “Our notion of animal confinement is dependent on technology. In the absence of virtual fencing, our paradigm of animal confinement is defined by barbed wire fences. Virtual fencing makes this definition [of animal confinement] go away. Animal confinement gets to be whatever you want it to be, and thus puts people in the position of rangeland managers rather than simply following the established protocol.” He mentions that this can be intimidating for ranchers who might be accustomed to a generational system of animal rotation. “But” he says, “now you can change that up!” Virtual fencing gives ranchers and land managers flexibility in their management styles.

Dr. Chad Boyd kneels and inspects a sagebrush plant
Rangeland scientist Chad Boyd

Additional Information and Project Documents

Project publication from the EOARC team: Virtual Fencing Effectively Excludes Cattle from Burned Sagebrush Steppe

The Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center (EOARC) is a working ranch and research collaborative that focuses on rangeland ecology and restoration of wildlands, environmentally compatible livestock systems, forage crops, and alternative livestock systems in the sagebrush-steppe of the Great Basin and inland coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest.

To learn more about virtual fencing, visit the Northwest Climate Hub Virtual Fencing page.