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Management

Virtual fencing allows producers to better utilize land resources

USDA Agricultural Research Service, Research Animal Scientist Dean M. Anderson has been working for over 30 years in developing a new system of fencing to more effectively distribute grazing animals across landscapes termed Directional Virtual Fencing (DVF™).

“One of the biggest challenges we have, whether we are talking about cows in Wyoming, New Mexico or elephants in Africa, is distribution,” says Anderson. “Getting animals distributed across the landscape so we can get a more proper use of our pastures isn’t easy.”

Fencing disconnect

Conventional fencing methods create a disconnect in managing range resources, says Anderson.

“We are using a static tool to manage two dynamic resources – plants and animals,” explains Anderson. “At least in my world, whenever I build a fence, it always seems to be in the wrong place next year.”

While fences will always be necessary, he says virtual fencing devices will enable ranchers to hold or move animals over landscapes without the cost and labor associated with conventional fencing.

“Conventional fences will always have a place on the landscape. They should never be replaced along railroad, right of ways or interstate highways for example,” he explains, “but the concept of virtual fencing is really to see if we can manage animals without the challenges of conventional methodologies.”

Sensory cues

“If the animals are cued on their right side, they move left, and if they are cued on their left side, they move right,” Anderson explains. “With DVF™, you can steer instrumented animals across the landscape.”

The side of the animal to which the cues are given is determined by the system’s electronics to move the animal back into the Virtual Paddock (VP™) using the shortest direction of travel that would elicit the least amount of irritating cuing in order to inflict the least amount of stress on an animal.

For the practical use of the system, Anderson says that, in his opinion, it is not required for every animal to be instrumented.

“If you are attempting group control, it is my opinion that if you were to instrument the lead animals, you most likely would be able to control the group the majority of the time as long as you are willing to periodically accept a “few” animals that may not follow the group,” he says. 

Levels of effectiveness

Although Anderson recognizes that no two animals are the same, the system was tested on a variety of cattle and was effective for animals of a variety of dispositions.

“Cattle are very intelligent,” Anderson says.

Cattle trained to wear the electronic equipment did not normally penetrate virtual boundaries deep enough to receive electrical stimulation following their training but responded to audio cues alone.

“My colleagues in Australia also did an interesting study in an area that I thought might be possible,” says Anderson. “They programmed the electronics on two bulls in the same pasture with a cow, and only one bull was allowed to breed the cow. They were able to keep the bulls apart.”

Though the system differed slightly in its construction from the device used by Anderson, he considers the possibility of being able to utilize multiple bulls in the same pasture with a herd of cows and being able to selectively choose which bulls were to breed which cows.

Anderson clarified, however, that more research into controlling bull behavior with virtual fencing during breeding is needed.

Value of virtual

“After stocking rate, distribution is the second biggest challenge in raising free ranging animals,” says Anderson. “This methodology should be thought of as a way to improve animal distribution across the landscape.”

He continues that, with virtual fencing, a leaky boundary must be accepted, so the system isn’t intended to replace conventional fences where health or safety issues cannot be breached; however, virtual fencing could eliminate many of the challenges associated with internal cross fencing. 

“Since 1926, we have tried at least 68 different things,” Anderson says of methods that ranchers have used to attempt to manage animal distribution over landscapes,  “but none of them work in real time. With this tool, you can sit at your kitchen table or in your vehicle, and program in a tailor-made way the location and movement schedule of a VP™ to hold or move  your animals over the landscape.”

The implications for real-time management of forage resources could allow cattle producers to take husbandry practices to a prescription level of management.

“I think virtual fencing has some really fantastic opportunities to be able to manage in near real-time,” Anderson adds.

Challenges

The system, however, is not without its challenges, comments Anderson.

“Right now, the thing that would be most limiting to commercial availability is power,” says Anderson. “Keeping electronics powered on a free ranging animal for extended periods of time without human intervention for changing batteries is a challenge.”

He has considered solar power options and is also looking into utilizing kinetic energy– or the energy captured from the movement of the animal’s ears, neck, head and legs – for keeping batteries charged to power the system.

Anderson also marks management as another challenge. Simply because the animals are contained using the virtual fence does not mean they don’t have to be checked to ensure electronics were programmed correctly and are operating properly.

“We know that electronics are not infallible,” he said, adding that the technology does not replace people such as range riders or astute stockmen to check on stock. 

Today, Anderson notes that the patent on the system is available, and they are working to find companies willing to manufacture the system. No commercial companies are currently producing DVF™.

How It Works

rted in the 1970s with the first patent for dog fences.

“Instead of having fence lines that are a few inches wide with visible posts and wire, DVF™ is basically an electronic belt invisible to the eye,” explains Anderson.

Animals are fitted with an electronics device equipped with GPS satellite technology, as well as a Geographical Information System (GIS) that contains a map of the area in which the animals are to remain. The boundaries of the virtual fence can be set into the GIS using GPS, Anderson notes this method of building fence eliminates all improvements for controlling animals from the landscape except for the instrumented animals themselves.

The system utilizes auditory and electrical stimulation to influence animals away from the virtual boundaries based on varying levels of sensory irritation.

“Sound is something that animals respond to,” he notes, using the example of ranchers who feed with a pickup truck. “We can apply these sound cues, starting with the most benign sounds – almost like a whisper – and up it to a level of irritation similar to standing behind a 747 at full throttle, to influence animal movements.”

The electrical stimulation levels, he says, range from the sensation of hitting your funny bone to something similar to grabbing the spark plug, barehanded, of an operating internal combustion engine.

As animals approach the boundary, of the Virtual Paddock (VP™) stimulation begins with low-level auditory cues that increase in volume as the cattle attempt and move further into the electronic belt.  If the audio cues do not change the animal’s direction of movement, audio is followed by electrical stimulation.  It can be ramped up to the “spark plug” effect.  

Should the animal still not change its behavior, cueing is programmed to stop, based on either distance the animal has moved or the length of time the cues have been applied without eliciting a proper change in the animal’s direction of travel.  This prevents the “stubborn” animal from being unnecessarily stressed.  

By locating necessary nutritional items such as drinking water, supplement or minerals inside the VP™ animals that successfully penetrated the electronic fence are “lured back” inside the VP™ to gain those essential nutritional items without being cued until they would again attempt and penetrate the electronic fence.

To learn more about how Dean M. Anderson’s virtual fencing system works, visit jornada.nmsu.edu/people/dean-anderson. Please note that the site is a USDA-ARS website and should be considered safe.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..