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KVNF Farm Friday: Ranchers and the environment benefit from 'high-tech' fencing

 LeValley Ranch
LeValley Ranch
LeValley Ranch

LeValley Ranch near Hotchkiss has been participating in a pilot study using the latest technology in virtual fencing to manage cattle that graze on Bureau of Land Management land near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Virtual fencing works via battery operated collars placed on cattle and monitored by Global Positioning System or GPS.

I recently spoke with Robbie LeValley about the pilot project that allows ranchers to control livestock without physical fences helping them to save thousands of dollars on manual labor as well as protecting the environment from overgrazing.

“ We would build the perimeter on the computer and then when the animal gets within a certain distance of the perimeter it gets a sound and then if they move closer to that perimeter that’s when the slight shock is applied and then the animal moves away from that shock. So what you see over time is that the animal knows when it hears that initial sound to move in an opposite direction,” said LeValley.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, virtual fencing is one tool helping rangeland managers adapt to impacts of climate change by keeping animals within a desired area or excluding them from undesired areas including over grazed areas or areas recovering from a wildland fire. Because more traditional fences will burn, the virtual fencing allows ranchers and rangeland managers to reestablish boundaries more quickly for livestock in post-fire environments.

LeValley also said there are a number of benefits to the ranchers who place virtual fencing on their property or on public grazing lands.

“Certainly the reduced cost of just the fence because it’s incredibly expensive to construct and rebuild the barbed wire fence so that’s one advantage. Two is just knowing where the cattle are, especially this time of year if you’ve still got some up in the high country you’d be able to locate where they’re at and then just being able to more intensively manage a grazing program,” LeValley told KVNF.

As the new technology begins to take hold, other ranchers in the region are considering using virtual fencing in their management practices.

“There are additional ranches in Delta County that are taking a hard look at it based not only on our experience but experiences of producers around the state,” LeValley said.

In addition to all the benefits, virtual fencing could also help regional ranches improve soil and water quality by making rotational grazing more accessible. The practice limits the number of livestock and controls the timing and intensity of grazing. Studies show that some of the benefits of rotational grazing include stimulating better plant regrowth and adding the proper amount of manure to the soil. Virtual fencing also allows managers to move livestock from one pasture to the next and to create useful within-pasture boundaries.

The pilot study at the LeValley Ranch is an ongoing project with the US Forest Service according to LeValley who’s writing a paper on the project for the Bureau of Land Management.

"We're working with the Forest Service next year so there will be additional towers up higher. Batteries are still working now. When we brought the cows back down to the lower valley. So, we’ll remove those collars this month and then put new batteries in this winter and then put the collars back on the cows next spring before we turn them out on the BLM," said the local rancher.

So far, the virtual fencing project at LeValley Ranch has been successful in its first season, " Overall very pleased with how it worked and certainly it met expectations."

While the new technology is promising, there are a few challenges to ranchers including having reliable functional technology in the area, time and labor placing collars on cattle and constructing the towers. For most ranchers the biggest obstacle is the high upfront cost.

Fortunately there are a number of USDA programs that offer grants to ranchers looking to invest in the latest ranching technology.

Lisa was born in Texas but grew up on a small farm in Olathe, Colorado and considers herself a “Colorado native after six years of age.” Lisa has seven years experience in media, beginning as a News Director for a small radio station on the Eastern Plains. Following her initial radio career, Lisa worked as a staff reporter for The Journal Advocate in Sterling, Colorado and most recently as a staff reporter for the Delta County Independent. Lisa is thrilled to join the award-winning News and Public Affairs team at KVNF.