Don’t pressure me: Collaborative virtual fencing study aims to enhance conservation and livestock outcomes

Manhattan, Kansas – Imagine raising livestock without a traditional fence and costly and time-consuming fence repairs. Two environmental scientists at Kansas State University are working to make this vision a reality while making use of streams and birds. It’s part of a multi-partner research project using a virtual electronic cattle fence in Flint Hills, Kansas.

Virtual fencing is implemented with special livestock collars and advanced GPS tracking that can be used to create exclusion zones or to move livestock without the need for physical fencing lines.

The Nature Conservancy is partnering with Kansas State University, the National Park Service, the Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition and private producers to determine if hypothetical fencing can help managers improve conservation, business outcomes and soil carbon on operating cattle ranches in the United States. K-State received a $435,000 grant from The Nature Conservancy to study conservation aspects of the project in Kansas.

This work by K-State is part of a $2 million project in three locations that is also evaluating how to improve soil carbon and livestock outcomes through innovative management options made possible through virtual fencing. Additional project sites are located in Colorado and New Mexico.

Flint Hills is home to some of the last remaining longest prairie in the United States. During the five-year study, Alice Boyle, assistant professor of biology, and Walter Dodds, eminent university professor of biology, will serve as a joint state in Korea State. Principal investigators. They seek to understand how grazing practices created by virtual fencing affect the plants, watersheds and grassland birds of Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and the neighboring Mushrush Red Angus Farm near Strong.

A Kansas State University research project is investigating the effects of virtual cattle fencing on grass birds and areas along waterways in a longgrass meadow and private cattle ranch. Image courtesy of Kansas State University

The experiments will allow Boyle to assess the effects of the hypothetical fence on the habitat of grassland-dependent birds, including the greater prairie hen and Henslow’s finch. Dodds will study the effects on river areas – areas bordering water bodies – and water quality.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to test how virtual fencing can be used to protect the waterways in the Flint Hills,” Dodds said. “With management concerns for the tall prairie and Flint Hills, both ranchers and researchers are looking at how to align conservation and livestock production goals.”

From bison to cats

Cattle grazing mimics the original grazing of bison, which are an important part of the prairie ecosystem. Grazing helps create the habitat patches that tall birds need and is also a tool for land management. This project will help reveal potential new land conservation and land management practices through precise control of livestock movement, according to the researchers.

“The grazing animals are really an important part of the system,” Boyle said. “A lot of grassland birds need livestock. It’s all in the details – amounts, locations, times. This project would be a huge advance to be able to manage within pastures at precise spatial scales to achieve the vegetation structure that birds need.”

The Nature Conservancy strives to promote the use of land management tools and practices that improve prairie habitats and to support the adoption of best practices by ranchers, resource experts and other land managers.

“In the Tallgrass Prairie National Conservation area where we will be using the virtual fence, we cannot use a full rotation of three-year burn pasture,” said Anthony Cabezu, director of the Flint Hills Initiative at The Nature Conservancy. “This project has the potential to increase types of habitat diversity to create a more complex meadow with positive impacts on livestock management and economic viability.”

Mushrush Red Angus, a private farm owned by Daniel Mushrush, is adjacent to the reserve and is a partner in the research project. Mushrush looks to support the goals of the conversation at The Nature Conservancy but also to ensure that his business thrives.

“We are using 21st century technology to solve more than one problem at a time,” Mushrush said. “By using these collars on both sides of property lines, we are protecting chicken coops in the prairie and riverside areas and at the same time, we are grazing more efficiently and intelligently.”

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