“It’s Not the Cow, It’s the How” Virtual Fencing Brings Sustainability to Ranching

Article and photos by Emmalyn Meyer

Home Ranch, which is implementing virtual fencing, still has some physical fences on its property.

Clark, Colo. At 4 a.m., the birds begin chirping dawn’s chorus, a wake-up call for cowboys and girls to buckle their belts and fix their cowboy hats for the day’s work ahead. Then, it’s routine to saddle the horses and make their way to the cattle. But rancher Michael Moon settles into his day at his desk, clocking onto his computer to access Vence, a virtual fencing management system. Moon locates and manages his herd from miles away, all the while enjoying that morning’s caffeine fix. 

To Moon, the manager of Home Ranch in Clark, the conservation side of ranching is just as important as the production side. The family ranch runs around 220 Mother cows (cow-calf pairs) on 1,200 acres of private, expansive alpine landscape tucked into the Rocky Mountains at elevation gains that reach 12,180 feet in the Elk River Valley. Moon steers the agricultural practices of The Home Ranch to protect and conserve the land while managing cattle that will provide high-quality food for generations to come.

Virtual fencing is a mix between cutting edge and old school. It is recasting the traditional image of cowboys working their herd on horseback, which can be very strenuous, to monitoring and controlling cattle movements through a digital touch.

The cattle are dressed in collars with auditory and electrical stimuli that warn the animal when it reaches the pasture boundary (set by the rancher on a tablet), comparable to the warning an animal receives from a shock collar. It is an ag-technology that is replacing traditional fencing so that ranchers can monitor their herds around the clock and direct them to different points of the pasture, settling rotational grazing into ranching routines.

“Grazing is a natural process that, if done properly, is good for the planet,” Moon said. “Regenerative is a word, sustainability is the word that has come out in the last few years, and the idea is that it’s a longer history of wanting to leave the land better than we found it and working with natural processes instead of against them.”

The Home Ranch uses the Vence system, which relies on solar powered base stations.

Virtual fencing is a relatively new crusade in the agriculture industry. There are currently four companies available for producers to purchase: Vence, Nofence, eShepard, and Corral Technologies. All but one of the systems (Corral Technologies) use their own towers and base stations, which can run up a steep bill, but shy away from possible connectivity problems.

Systems that rely on cell towers to communicate with the collars can run into connection issues in areas with minimal cell phone coverage. As with most new technologies, the technological kinks will smooth over with more research, testing, and adoption, and costs will ease over time.

Conventional cattle grazing (i.e., farmed animals roaming and feeding on wild vegetation, mainly grass) settles livestock in pastures for long periods, insisting on a highly prescriptive system that narrows biodiversity in farm and ranchland ecosystems, interrupting the natural processes to retain and build carbon, organic matter and water in soils. Moreover, traditional grazing interrupts forage biomass production, the productivity of legumes and grasses suitable to an animal’s liking on any given acre, which expends plant diversity as the cattle grow liking to a select group of plants, expelling others out of the ecosystem. The impact extends not just to the performance of the livestock but to the profitability of farming/ranching and the ultimate resiliency of the land. It is a process that is very environmentally taxing.

“When people hear about overgrazing, they think it is too many animals, but overgrazing is too much time.” Moon said. “You could have one cow in a 1,000-acre pasture, and if you leave it there for too long, it will be under-grazing part of the pasture and overgrazing other parts. So that’s why we’ve got to keep the cattle moving.”

Raising livestock using rotational grazing patterns divides pastures into smaller units/paddocks, concentrating the cattle into one unit at a time and then rotating the herd more quickly through all the units. This system structures in rest time for plants to decompose into the soil, replenishing soil nutrient cycles and quality forage regrowth, increasing the overall carrying capacity of the land.

Rotational systems curb carbon emissions as the forage is more evenly utilized and coated with dung and urine (i.e., fertilizer), which the cattle trample enough so that it comes in contact with the soil where microbes can decompose and recycle it. Similar to short-term grazing, short-term soil disturbance builds resilience in the plants and promotes healthy soil. Ultimately, these processes armor the land with nutrient-rich plants, keeping the ground covered.

The agriculture sector consumes 38% of the planet’s terrestrial surface. More than half of that land is degraded. The biggest offenders include unsustainable agriculture practices like deforestation, tillage, livestock overgrazing and monocropping. Conventional agriculture methods clear the land of its habitat for wildlife and pollinators, minimizing its ability to store and sequester carbon, a natural process of grass that pulls CO2 from the air, storing it in the soil. 

According to the World Economic Forum, these destructive practices equate to roughly $400 billion in annual productivity losses, a threat to the world’s food systems. Exemplary of these issues is The Great Plains, an expansive, robust grassland that illustrates the great swaths of land being plowed for row-crop expansion, the conversion of grasslands and other ecosystems for agricultural production. In 2021, The Great Plains lost an amount that equates to more than the size of Delaware, roughly 32 million acres.

Dr. Joe Brummer, a forages and grazing expert at Colorado State University, said, “The integration of livestock into cropping systems is one of the key principles of regenerative agriculture. Back in the day when the nation was built on the backs of small family farmers, livestock were almost always a part of the system.” 

He explained that the proper grazing of range and pasture lands using rotational systems has many positive impacts, including: maintaining or improving plant vigor, reducing soil erosion, improving water infiltration, maintaining wildlife habitat, providing higher quality forage for livestock, and improving the farmers/ranchers bottom line.

In a recent research project conducted by Dr. Brummer at Colorado State University, a form of rotational grazing, MiG (Management-intensive Grazing), was utilized to study the change of a field transitioned from annual cropping/tillage to perennial forages that the university’s cows grazed. MiG is a more concentrated form of rotational grazing that places cows in smaller grass areas for short periods, moving them as often as twice a day. Brummer explained that the study found that overall, there was an increase in organic matter and microbial activity, promoting soil health.

Oxbow Cattle Company runs over 400 cows on over 8,000 acres of leased land. (Photo courtesy of Karalyn Stanhope)

In Missoula, Mont., Oxbow Cattle Company uses MiG to graze their cattle in pursuit of their mission to “do right by the land, animals, and community – even when no one is watching.”

Although MiG can be a labor-taxing process, it attests to a rancher’s knowledge of their land and herd so that no grass goes to waste. Furthermore, it improves the herd’s health since they’re rotated so often onto fresh forage.

As an apprentice with the company, Karalyn Stanhope said, “If you are in regenerative-ag, trying to improve land takes time, months, years, decades, and some transformations we won’t see in our lifetime. But regardless it comes down to if you truly care and cherish it enough to leave it better than you found it in hopes that it succeeds and survives for the future.”

Ranching that leans into this holistic approach to land stewardship is not new. The concept of regenerative agriculture has links to the early agro-practices of the Aztec Empire in the 1300s. They introduced the tradition of planting different kinds of seedlings that work together to nurture the soil, retain moisture, and control pests. Regenerative agriculture is similar in tactic, giving back to the land through integrative relationships with the ecosystem that nod to nature’s timeline.

“In the distant past, ranching was about this (working with nature) because people had no choice. Then, we came to this idea that we’re going to dominate nature. We’re going to make it work, a sort of a ‘tough guy’ kind of idea.

And then also came technology and the green revolution, this idea that somehow diesel fuel was going to be a way that we could subdue nature to make it work for us.” Moon said. “And now, to me, we’re pivoting back to an old way of looking at agriculture and sort of this natural process to work with, not against.”

New ag-tech developments like virtual fencing empower ranchers to tap into the ancestral wisdom of agriculture, adapting to the land and working to conserve it.

The Home Ranch in Clark, Colo.,was founded in 1980 under Steve Stranahan and his family.

For The Home Ranch and Moon, this will be the second year they are operating with virtual fencing, citing its sustainability and long-term economic advantages. In particular, for around two and half months, their cattle graze on national forest land that sits above the ranch, where fencing is difficult, time-consuming to install, and prone to damage from wildlife and falling beetle-kill pine trees. The alternative of virtual fencing offers sustainable management of their herd without the upkeep of physical barriers. 

The Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Parks and Wildlife also encourage digital models to graze livestock as they limit wildlife interaction with fencing and promote pasture rotation. In an interview, Todd Hagenbuch, Colorado State University Extension Director and Agriculture Specialist for Routt County, explained that virtual fencing enables ranchers to better manage their cattle by moving their cattle more often, excluding them from sensitive riparian zones, reducing fuel load and the amount of physical fencing on the landscape.

“VF (Virtual Fencing) absolutely will allow ranchers to re-create more managed grazing in the future, much like herders and range managers did years ago before labor became too expensive and hard to get,” Hagenbuch said. 

Ranching is an industry that requires very rugged and demanding around-the-clock work that fluctuates significantly due to shifting overhead costs, uncertain weather patterns, government subsidies, and public policies that regulate the industry. Moreover, it is, by and large, a multigenerational business that relies on inherited knowledge to lead the management of the land and livestock so that the family name carries forward.

“It’s very risky, and that’s why we tend to be conservative (small c conservative) about what we (ranchers) do because if my grandfather did this and my great grandfather did this and managed to survive, I’m going to be real careful about what I change.” Moon said. “And if they’re already stretched to the breaking point with the amount of work they’re doing, the idea of taking on something new will not be attractive.”

“Cost and topography are the number one challenges right now. I foresee cost per cow decreasing as the technology improves and becomes more commonplace, and as ranchers figure out how to use the relay towers in common (i.e., sharing agreements/joint ownership/etc.), this will help. In mountainous areas, finding places where a tower can be placed to have a line-of-site with all areas of a property is challenging, mostly because access to such areas is often difficult,” Hagenbuch said. 

These innovations take time, money, and practice for ranchers to benefit from, but they present a future that values sustainability in agricultural methods and management. Regenerative practices run counter to absolutism, as every farm and ranch is situated in varying environments that require context-specific responses.

“There’s sort of a feeling sometimes that ranchers are just out there destroying the land to raise cows, but no ranch that lasts very long can do that,” said Moon. “It’s not the cow, it’s the how.”