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Virtual fences may help cows have less of an impact on climate change


When animals eat too much grass in one spot, it's bad for the soil and, now we know, the climate. For centuries, we've had shepherds and cowfolks to regulate their flocks and herds and, well, the like. As we learned in October, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is testing out some new technology to try to cut down on overgrazing - virtual fencing. Here's Colorado Public Radio's Michael Elizabeth Sakas.


MICHAEL ELIZABETH SAKAS: Rancher Pat Luark is driving in the mud out to the acres of public land his cattle graze near Eagle, Colo. He pulls over and examines the grass.

PAT LUARK: This grass that you're seeing here is the most cherished grass to the cows, to the elk, to the squirrels. They love this grass.

SAKAS: Even with years of back-to-back drought, the grass seems to be improving. Why? Luark is working with the Bureau of Land Management to try out something new.

LUARK: Here's a good example of it. It's like fencing your dog in with no fence.

SAKAS: Luark's cows each wear a shock collar. Reception towers use GPS to speak to each other and the collars to create virtual fence lines. The company is called Vence, as in virtual fence. Luark can move the fence and his cows using his computer.

LUARK: We got another 640 acres we fenced off that historically been overgrazed. I don't know. All the cows just seem to just hammer it. There's not been one cow on it. We're going to go down there, and we will see seed heads everywhere.

SAKAS: This virtual fence allows Luark to move cattle before they overgraze a spot. That means healthier grass and soil. The Bureau of Land Management is funding the virtual fence experiment with a grant. Kristy Wallner is the project's manager.

KRISTY WALLNER: Now we can move fences and use ground in a way we never have even thought about. And now, with no hard fences, the flow of energy of wildlife can move with their babies across the landscape, how they would naturally do it.

SAKAS: The idea of moving livestock around to prevent overgrazing isn't new. Ranchers can use portable electric fences to do the same thing. But that's labor intensive. Wildlife can knock fences down, and some pastures, like on the side of a mountain, are hard to get to. Todd Parker is with the tech startup Vence. In a training video, he pulls up a map with pastures and dozens of little dots - those are cows - and orange lines that show where the virtual fence is.


TODD PARKER: And the animals are being managed to graze from the north to the south on this west side.

SAKAS: Parker says the less time ranchers spend chasing cows and fixing fences, the more time they have to manage the health of their animals and the land, though he does hear from ranchers who are worried that virtual fence will replace them.

PARKER: We like to have a conversation as, look; we're not eliminating the cowboy. We are changing the job.

SAKAS: Parker says this technology also means cows are having less impact on climate change. When cows move as a herd, it's actually better. They trample grass and urine and manure into the ground. This layer of mulch helps store moisture and add nutrients to the soil.

PARKER: At the end of the day, a healthy grassland and a healthy root system is sequestering carbon.

SAKAS: Vence is working with the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service in other states as well. Regenerative agriculture is considered an important climate solution since it has the potential to help plants take more carbon out of the air and store it in healthy soil. Bobby Gill is with the Savory Institute, a nonprofit that works to regenerate grasslands, which he says evolved with hoofed animals.

BOBBY GILL: North America used to have 60 million to 75 million bison roaming across it, and they never returned to a piece of land until those grasses had fully recovered.

SAKAS: Gill says virtual fences could help get cows moving, like how wolves and other predators chase bison. This way, instead of being a detriment to the land, cows can be essential to its health.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Elizabeth Sakas in Burns, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas