Some Eagle County ranchers are using virtual fences

Early results are promising, with more work to do

There are roughly 2,000 cattle being contained this summer by virtual fencing.
Eagle County Soil Conservation District/courtesy photo

Ranchers have long used public lands for grazing livestock. Several local ranchers this year are using new technology to better control the movements of those animals.

The Eagle County Conservation District, along with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, has started a three-year pilot program using equipment from a company called Vence. That equipment helps ranchers better contain animals, and can virtually fence in those animals in specific areas. That means keeping animals out of areas that have recently burned, or out of riparian areas.

By the numbers

$1.5 million: Grant funding for the virtual fencing project in Eagle County.
10: Virtual fencing base stations in Eagle County.
500,000: Acres covered by the base stations.
2,000: Collared cattle being virtually fenced this season.

While the grant-funded project is in its earliest stages, Clayton Gerard, whose family has long raised cattle near Gypsum, sees the potential in the system.

Gerard said the system needs a number of improvements, and ranchers have a lot to learn. But he added, “It’s going to be a pretty neat tool.”

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

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How it works

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

Gerard said when an animal does go outside the enclosure, for instance, if a cow goes after a wayward calf, the system will allow the animals back into the enclosure without a bump from the collars.

Gerard said cattle are already starting to learn about the system.

Effectively moving animals can benefit the rest of an ecosystem.

Eagle County Conservation District Manager Laura Bohannon said the Vence system in theory can move animals from parcel to parcel, preventing overgrazing on one site and preventing damage to creekbeds and other riparian areas.

The system being evaluated in Eagle County is called “prescribed grazing management.” Using the virtual fence, ranchers can graze a specific area one year, then rest that parcel the next season.

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

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

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

A commitment to the land

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 fungus to break down the carbon in the soil.

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

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

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

But soil in the high desert of Eagle County adapts slowly. That’s why Gerard would like to see the pilot program extended beyond three years. “It takes longer than that to change the soil,” he said.

Gerard added that virtual fencing could solve problems that occur when ranching and recreation meet.

People out hiking or mountain biking don’t often close cattle gates, he said. Other users are advocating to get rid of fencing on public land. Managing with virtual fencing takes care of both those issues.

Roughly 2,000 cattle in Eagle County are wearing collars that help 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 advances in cell phones, she said “People talk about the technology being there. But the collars next year are supposed to be half the size (of the current collars). Soon we may not even need the base stations.

“The point is we have to get started,” 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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