First Look at Nofence Virtual Fencing

written by

Scott Haase

posted on

February 16, 2023

By Scott Haase

Back in 2018 or even earlier I first heard about something called “virtual fencing”. Once I figured out what it was it took almost no time at all for me to get very excited about the possibilities it would open up. Maybe I was lucky enough that the muse visited at that moment or maybe it was years of pondering the intersection between ecological matters and rapidly evolving technological developments. Whatever it was, it was apparent that through drastically increased livestock management capabilities, and decreased time and effort on the part of the rancher, the potential to use ruminants as a tool to regenerate the landscape is about be blown wide open!

These were my thoughts at least when I first discovered the concept and my optimism has only grown since then. After years of anticipation and trying to make connections within the handful of companies developing the technology finally late this past October a set of virtual fencing collars from Nofence in Norway arrived at Blue Dirt Farm. We are so fortunate to be part of their North American pilot project and the first in Minnesota to use the collars to manage cattle. Possibly the first on this continent to use them for the custom grazing of cattle. By custom grazing I mean tending someone else’s cattle on (a different) someone else’s land, although a few of the animals are our own. Regardless of any ‘first’s, and the fact that winter in Minnesota is generally not the best season for grazing, it’s been tremendously exciting!

But, backing up for just a moment, why am I so excited about grazing livestock? If you follow today’s media narratives you’ll probably come the conclusion that cows are bad and we should be raising (and eating!) a lot fewer of them. To gain an intimate understanding of how animals, ruminant animals especially, are so important for land regeneration and the creation of healthy topsoil we’d need to go fairly deep and I will share more details in a three part article that’s underway at the time of this writing. For now, please try to recognize and appreciate that prairie and savanna ecosystems would not exist without ruminant animals. Their impact and products like dung and urine are critical for closing ecological loops and creating niches required for the diverse group of organisms that make up the web of life. This web of life is severely degraded on today’s agricultural landscape. I didn’t coin the phrase “it’s not the cow, it’s the how” but that sums it up quite nicely!

At the soil level the same need for closing ecological loops is true. In the repeating fractal nature in which life always seems to present itself the soil food web under a functional plant-animal community is robust and diverse. Cause and effect become impossible to separate. Without diverse vegetation, healthy populations of herbivores cannot exist and the over time the inverse becomes glaringly apparent. Without any animals, communities of native plants can only be maintained through great effort and “inputs” that take the form of fertilizer, herbicides, and/or a lot of human sweat! The “wild” animals of today’s altered landscape help things along. But, to really turn up the volume and maximize regenerative potential, we need to at least attempt to mimic the suite of animal species that would be part of a functioning prairie or savanna ecosystem. 

Nature’s dynamic balance is where the magic is and to anyone who’s become a keen observer and student to the landscape the experience and feeling of being in the midst of it is unmistakeable. As a beginner’s lesson go out into a mono-cropped agricultural field or even a large sterile-feeling manicured area of lawn. Listen for the sounds of life around you, pay attention to the insects, the birds, and other visible life. What do you hear? How many different plant species can you count? Now, go into a well-managed pasture or at least a garden or field with a diversity of plant life. Notice the difference in the sounds, the smells, and the diversity of life surrounding you. I’ve been in fields and pastures literally abuzz with life! The flocks of birds that return to pasture land where animals are moved daily are incredible! Even environmental organizations like the Audobon Society, which now offers a certification for regenerative ranchers, are recognizing the potential that well-managed grazing ruminants enable in terms of biodiversity and habitat. 

Let’s go back to today’s agricultural landscape, that mono-cropped expanse without a lot of life in action. What we can readily observe is only the tip of the iceberg, reflective of what’s happening within the soil food web. This also matters tremendously to the water cycle because hard packed, degraded, mostly dead soil does not effectively infiltrate water. Water and air go through the same pore spaces between the aggregates present in healthy soil so our degraded soil is also low on oxygen. Anaerobic conditions dominate and the system alternates between a waterlogged condition to hard as a rock when the sun finally bakes the surface to a hard crust.

The hydrological cycle is so messed up that in my region (and many others) that we can be in a near-drought condition but then, just one fast hard rain will cause the river to flood out of its banks. I’ve seen this happen again and again in my own backyard at Blue Dirt Farm! All of that much-needed, life-giving water, sheeting uselessly off the land, carrying with it a heavy sediment load stripped away from the richest, uppermost layers of the soil’s skin.

What we need is diversity! More than just basically two plant species dominating the landscape. (Corn and soybeans, I’m looking at YOU!) We need the surface of the soil safely covered, preferably with mostly living plants but at the very least with a mulch of plant residue. We need more than just a couple warm season annual plants so that living roots year round are the norm. As a part of making these steps in better direction disturbing the soil with tillage and chemical biocides should be minimized or eliminated if possible. Lastly, to facilitate these changes let’s bring back the animals!

Okay! I’ve gotten really off-track here and could write pages about these kinds of interactions. Hopefully the last few paragraphs have been enough to get you to open up a bit and become curious. Especially if you’ve bought into the entrenched anti-meat, anti-animal agriculture ideas that place cows as the primary cause to all of our environmental problems. (It’s okay, an easy mistake to make!) But, if you still don’t agree, at the very least, maybe you understand why I strongly feel that grazing livestock back on the land are something to be excited about.

Across the fields and country blocks of Faribault County, where Blue Dirt Farm is based, most of the woven wire fences that once surrounded each tract of land have been ripped out, leaving little if any buffer between neighboring rows of corn. The few remaining fences are typically in disrepair and will also be removed as soon as a landowner or tenant farmer gets ambitious enough to do the job. Virtual fencing becomes an especially attractive option in this context! Although the materials and techniques for building livestock fence have drastically improved in the past several decades there’s still significant cost in time and material expense to build them. 

You can think of virtual fencing as an invisible fence that moves with the animals. From an app on my phone I can now easily create a virtual boundary, that the animals absolutely DO respect, in minutes. This boundary can be ANY size or shape as long as the perspective of the animal is taken into account and respected. This mean avoiding sharp corners and maintaining minimum widths so the animals feel safe and at ease within their designated area.

So how does it work? You’re probably wondering! I’ve been a little cryptic up to this point! Again, look for in-depth information in the upcoming three part article but I’ll go over the basics for you now. The virtual fencing collars have a GPS device, a connection with one or more cellular networks, and the ability to store boundary data while performing ongoing calculations determining where the collar is in relation to the boundary zone. Lastly, the collars have a means to communicate with the cow. As an animal approaches the boundary zone an audio warning cue begins playing. Cows (or goats or sheep, the other species Nofence is currently working with) hear the warning and quickly learn to turn themselves around, heading back in the direction they just came from. What happens if they don’t turn around? So glad you asked! A small electric shock is delivered, but believe me, they don’t receive many of these shocks before they understand how this works! The reward to the animal for learning this: a lifetime of grazing on fresh land and forage! Access to new areas, “virtual paddocks” can and should be given to the animals daily (or more frequently throughout a day), especially during the growing season. That way they’re never left to overgraze ‘putting green short’ grasses or forced to exist day after day among their own waste products in a smelly, fly-infested pen.

Cows are free to range in a similar way as their wild ancestors did, as nature intended, when virtual fencing is used properly. The threat of an electrical shock substituting for pressure from wolves or other bands of natural predators (like human beings!) keeping them bunched together as a herd unit. Have you ever driven by a pasture and seen cows widely spread across it, grazing all willy-nilly? Not what nature intended, in my professional opinion! It’s easy to measure many of the undesirable consequences of grazing in that configuration. But, if we can muster up a high enough number and density of animals we can even begin to mimic the pulsing impact of the long forgotten wild herds that the soil and plants respond so positively to. Through taking a more noble role as a keystone species we can wake up nature and we’ll all benefit from its vast latent energy.

In the corn belt land itself is a big constraint to change primarily because of lack of fences but also I think due to a lack of understanding of the concepts I’ve sketched out for you above. The virtual fencing has potential to open up the land for grazing, at least for the six or seven months when nothing is happening on it under the normal current arrangements. The understanding part could be the tougher problem to tackle. But some farmers are already planting cover crops, and if they realize the multiplying effect livestock integration will have on their efforts in terms of building healthy soil that their crops will thrive in, they’ll enthusiastically welcome cattle onto their land. Helping spread this understanding is a big reason I’m writing this and is becoming the life’s work of an increasing number of well-known professionals in the regenerative agriculture community. With the help of consumers paying attention and understanding too we might have a chance for a positive transformative change across the agricultural landscape before we lose so much topsoil that it gets us in serious trouble as a civilization.

So, that’s the big idea in a nutshell! Now I’ll bring it back to earth and share my experience so far with the Nofence collars and the plans for this next season at Blue Dirt Farm. When the VF collars arrived in October, it was right in the middle of our often hectic harvest season at my “other farm” Haase Family Farms. Despite the long days of work I got each collar powered up and ready for use over about a week using the two battery chargers shipped with the collars,. The collars actually have small solar panels to help keep batteries powered up but starting with a full charge is important.

A few weeks later, and after lots of reading, tutorial videos, and an on-boarding webinar, we successfully strapped the 14 of the collars onto cattle. 5 of them in one group were either owned by or under the direct management of BDF and the other 9 were at a large beef cattle farm owned by a friend’s family nearly 35 miles away. Fitting the collars on the animals required running them through a “chute” where a locking mechanism catches and immobilizes each animal. After a few “too tight” or “too loose” trials my helpers and I began to getting the hang of it. The cattle were then left alone to get used to the new “danglies” around their necks for a day or two before training commenced.

Meghan Filbert, one of Nofence’s first employees hired in the US, says it usually takes longer for farmers to learn the app than it takes for the animals to learn the system. I won’t confirm or deny this from my experience! Training for the cattle takes place in a large pen with physical fences. The virtual boundary zone is set up so only one edge of it crosses the penned in area. If you think of it as a square shape, three sides are well beyond the physical fences and one side is inside the pen. This creates an area where the cows are “safe” from warning tones and electrical shock and another zone that they quickly learn to avoid! We needed to make sure the water source and anything else they need is inside the virtually fenced area.

Training went smoothly! After only a few days the animals were staying in-bounds with very few exceptions. In the Nofence app I can look at tracking features to see where the animals have been spending most of their time. Also I can look up when and where they’ve received any audio warning cues or electrical pulses. This is extremely helpful for better understanding interactions between the animals and this new system. It’s fun to open up the app and see how individual animals are testing the boundary, determining its shape, and receiving sometimes dozens of audio cues without any electrical pulses!

Occasionally, especially in the first week, I’d receive notifications from the app that an animal has “escaped”. If a cow goes through the boundary zone and receives a shock the Nofence system has a secondary boundary zone parallel to the boundary set on the app. There’s actually even a 3rd parallel boundary zone. This kind of redundancy greatly increases the effectiveness! Only after the animal fails to turn back after a third time is the escaped notification sent. An important note is that there are no warnings or pulses for animals moving back into the virtual paddock or pasture. It’s essentially a one-way fence!

I’m finding that as the cows get better trained there are almost never “escaped” notifications and when there are, the cow quickly returns to be with the rest of the herd. If for some reason it didn’t return I’ll at least know exactly where the animal is and I could even set a new individual boundary to contain it. This is an incredibly valuable feature! Over the summer I had a cow get separated for a few days and we kept it in a 5 acre pen with a wooded area within it. It took an hour or more some days just to find it in there! At first I was extremely concerned that it got out or something had happened to it. That hour long, nerve wrenching search can now be done in minutes!

As I mentioned in the beginning, since it’s winter I’m not moving the boundary on a daily basis like I will be during the growing season. This seems to cause the animals to be a bit out of practice when the boundary is moved after being in the same place for several days. Moving the boundary daily definitely helps! 

There are way too many other details and experiences to share here and this is already turning into a monster of a blog post so let’s wrap it up! Summary; Nofence is working extremely well and I couldn’t be more excited to continue!

In conclusion, know that I want to scale this as rapidly as possible. Not for profit, or because I don’t think I already have enough work to do, but because I’m convinced this is by far our best chance to regenerate soil at scale and revitalize rural America. If I can communicate a shared vision, put together a team, find willing investors, and reintegrate livestock across the landscape at an ambitious scale, re-greening it during our “brown seasons” in the process, maybe it will be repeated. Repeated all across the midwest United States, touching a large enough portion of farm acres so that the sediment-choked rivers are improved, actually shrinking the Mississippi “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico!

Let’s do this! Can you help in any way? Please get in contact, share the message, do your part to help heal the land and ourselves. Thanks for listening to one (probably) over-optimistic farmer.

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