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A literally virtual cowboy | News | – Choteau Acantha

I like words, and I get a kick out of the modern use of “literally.” Whereas “literally” used to mean “interpret exactly as written,” it is now commonly used in the opposite sense, to add emphasis to a statement that is not exactly true, such as “That hot sauce literally set my mouth on fire!” Another fun one is “virtually,” which can mean “almost all” as in “virtually everyone agrees” — but now more often means “attending online, not in the flesh” as in “She’s attending the meeting virtually.” Ironically, the connotation “almost all” still applies to online attendance — just ask anyone who multitasks throughout a virtual meeting.

So how does this relate to cowboys? Well, I attended a grazing conference in western Montana last week (literally, not virtually, by the way), and one of the presenters confessed that his in-laws call him the Digital Cowboy. (That bytes, right?) But this guy claims he can herd his cows virtually.

The concept of virtual livestock fence won’t come as a shock to cattle producers, as this technology has been written about for several decades. It originated in Australia and the United Kingdom, but is now extensively studied in the United States The basic tenets are like electric dog fencing, where a dog wears a battery-powered electronic collar that delivers a shock when the dog crosses a buried electrical line defining his yard. A key difference is that there is no buried electrical line in virtual livestock fencing. Rather, global positioning system (GPS) technology and the Internet are used to set and monitor virtual fence boundaries. Livestock collars are programmed to respond to virtual boundaries with a warning beep followed by an electrical shock as the collar-wearer approaches or crosses the “line.” Another key difference from older electronic dog fences — livestock collars are programmed so that an animal returning to the safe zone will not get shocked on reentry.

Who makes these virtual fences? Currently, the three main companies are Gallagher, NoFence and Vence. Vence is commercially available in the United States. Systems have been studied in cattle and other species, particularly sheep. For simplicity, we will refer to cows for the rest of this article.

Will cows blow through the virtual fence and scatter? Yes, if not trained. Training cows requires a few days to weeks during which a virtual boundary is overlaid on an existing physical fence. As a collar-wearing cow approaches the dual boundary, she gets a beep and then a shock. Over time, the virtual boundary is moved just inside the physical boundary, and the beep and the shock are separated by more seconds. The physical fence prevents the cow from making the wrong choice about how to avoid a shock (the wrong choice would be to run in the same direction she was heading when she heard the warning beep), and soon she learns to avoid a shock by turning around and heading the opposite direction when she hears the beep. A recent study in Oregon by Chad Boyd, et al., reported efficacy of over 96% at keeping cattle within virtual boundaries, even in the first few days of a new boundary.

What are the advantages of virtual fence? The universal grazier’s goal is to put cattle where you want them and keep them there until it’s time to move. Virtual fence can accomplish that in hard-to-fence areas and in country where it’s difficult to herd cattle (e.g., too steep for four-wheelers or in densely wooded areas where a cow can beat a cowboy on horseback.) Well-collar-trained cows can be moved from one virtual pasture to another without human presence by progressively changing the boundaries over a programmed amount of time. Virtual fences can be moved as many times as you want at no additional cost (think about this on leased ground.) Virtual fence is wildlife friendly: wildlife populations won’t get fragmented and elk won’t tear down your fence. Collars can also be linked to a cow’s tag number to monitor her whereabouts and activities on your computer screen.

What are some disadvantages? Currently, the cost of virtual fence limits the situations in which it makes economic sense. The Digital Cowboy had experimented with the Vence system on a small group of cows for just over one year at the time of his presentation last week, but four or five larger Montana ranches are giving Vence a try. Vence’s GPS base stations, which can keep track of about 5,000 collared animals and have a 10,000- to 100,000-acre range, depending on topography, cost around $12,500, installed. Collars are leased at $40/cow/year and software is included in the lease. (The collar leasing model is touted over buying because collars are replaced free of charge when the technology changes or malfunctions.) Replacement batteries for collars cost $10 each, and batteries last three months to two years, depending on how frequently cattle are moved. An open question is whether smaller ranches could share base stations but program separate herd boundaries, to economize. Like physical fence, virtual fence is not infallible, and may seem less defensible along roadsides.

Someone in the audience asked the Digital Cowboy whether he noticed any behavioral changes in his collared cattle. He said that his cattle seemed a little warier of people after one year, which he chalked up to less interaction time. He also reported that three collars came off cows and were later found using the GPS system. He remains intrigued by the possibilities of virtual fence, joking that he can be in a pub having a beer while moving his cattle.

As for me, I’ll take the sights, sounds and smells of live animals virtually every time.

• • •

Jenn Swanson is the Teton County/MSU Extension agent who works with agriculture and the 4-H program. She can be reached at 406-466-2491 in the office or on her cell phone at 406-868-4570 or via email at


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