TOPEKA — Ecologists at Kansas State University are outfitting Flint Hills grassland cattle with tracking collars to create a virtual electronic fence capable of creating a protective buffer for fragile streams and ground-nesting birds.
The Nature Conservancy provided a $435,000 grant to Kansas State University for work with the National Park Service, the Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition and private producers to determine if “virtual” fencing could supplant portions of labor-intensive and high-cost wire fences on vast grazing pastures.
The idea is cattle collars and advanced GPS tracking could define exclusion zones where no physical fence existed. Cattle could be directed by use of distinct audio noises or low-power shocks.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to test how to use virtual fencing to protect the waterways in the Flint Hills,” said Walter Dodds, a KSU distinguished professor of biology. “With the management concerns of the tallgrass prairie and the Flint Hills, both ranchers and researchers are looking at how to align the goals of conservation and cattle production.”
The project blends with a $2 million effort at three sites to assess effectiveness of virtual fencing in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico in terms of conservation, ranch productivity and soil carbon measures.
Dodds and Alice Boyle, associate professor of biology at Kansas State, lead a five-year study of how grazing practices created by virtual fencing could influence vegetation, watersheds and grassland birds on the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and the Mushrush Red Angus ranch near Strong City .
Dodds’ emphasis will be on effects of the technology on riparian zones — areas bordering bodies of water — and water quality. Boyle’s task will be to consider habitat of grassland-dependent birds, including the greater prairie chicken and Henslow sparrow.
“Grazers are really an important part of the system,” Boyle said. “Many of the grassland birds need the cattle. It’s all in the details — the amounts, the locations and the times. This project is going to be a huge advance to be able to manage within pastures at fine spatial scales to achieve the vegetation structure the birds need.”
Grazing cattle or bison is important to the prairie ecosystem because the process creates patches of habitat for birds. The project will examine the potential of virtual fencing in areas of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve not part of the Nature Conservancy’s three-year rotation of prairie burning to deter woody or invasive plants.
Daniel Mushrush owns the Mushrush Red Angus ranch adjoining the Tallgrass Prairie preserve. He’s involved in the research to advance conservation goals as well as profitability of the cattle business.
“We are using 21st-century technology to solve more than one problem at a time,” he said. “By using these collars on both sides of the property lines, we protect prairie chicken leks and riparian zones and at the same time, we are grazing more efficiently and intelligently.”