By Natalie Allio, Agricultural Program Manager
In 2022, the Conservancy piloted a virtual fencing project, bringing a new technology to the grazing world and allowing ranchers to better manage livestock with an eye toward better soil health and protection of riparian areas. In partnership with the Upper Arkansas Conservation District and the U.S. Forest Service, we worked with five ranchers to begin implementing this new technology.
Given the success in 2022, the participating ranchers wanted to continue in 2023. We secured a 2-year, $200,000 grant from Chaffee Common Ground to grow the program’s infrastructure through purchasing and installing additional towers and providing support to participating ranchers for the cost of collar subscriptions. Each cow in a herd wears a collar and each collar requires an annual subscription costing $40.00. The collars are powered by a battery that costs $10.00. This brings the annual cost of collars for cows in the program to $50.00 per cow. On a herd of 125 cattle, that’s $6,250.00. To date, over 900 cows in Chaffee County are wearing collars!
This project once again puts Chaffee County in the forefront as a leader in taking an innovative approach to conservation and land management. Team members from VENCE, now owned by Merck Animal Health, were on hand the week of October 16th, 2023, to help with building and deploying base stations. They were joined by international Merck team members from the UK and New Zealand as a way of demonstrating what it takes to work shoulder to shoulder with ranchers, public land management agencies, and local supporting organizations on a project of this magnitude.
Preparation work began well in advance of the VENCE/Merck team’s arrival with local ranchers and Forest Service team members covering many miles of dirt road to scout potential base station sites that would have the cell coverage needed for the base stations to communicate with the cow’s collars. Towers that were ready for deployment were staged in as close proximity as possible to expedite final deployment. The first day was dedicated to knowledge sharing with the international Merck team and then the real work began.
Base stations do not arrive fully or even partially assembled. There are a considerable number of parts that must be assembled then loaded onto a truck or an off-road vehicle and transported to fairly remote, often steep locations. The base stations are solar powered which means a number of batteries weighing 75 pounds each, along with a solar panel are part of the equation. By Thursday all base stations were assembled but the team still faced the biggest challenge of the week, deploying a tower to a permanent site near Aspen Ridge. Even the bravest rancher with an equally brave friend could only get the base station so far up the steep slope with the help of an ATV, the final leg of the journey would require considerable strength, determination and teamwork. True grit prevailed and the base station was successfully deployed. Two more base stations were deployed on Friday before the tired team called it a successful week.
This project has required a lot of community support and shows a lot of promise for helping ranchers meet their land management goals. It has also proven helpful in mitigating impacts, such as gates that get left open, to ranching operations from the ever-increasing number of recreational land users. It has not been without its challenges, however, we are excited to see the successes that have come as the technology improves and we overcome the steep learning curve associated with new technology.
2024 will be our third grazing season utilizing virtual fence. Thanks to a lot of hard work this fall we are well positioned to see even more success 2024.