Testing Virtual Fence Technology in an Upper Midwestern Goat Grazing Operation

Progress report for FNC21-1306

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $8,910.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2023
Grant Recipient: The Munch Bunch LLC
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Allysse Sorensen
The Munch Bunch LLC
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Our 200 goats travel in a six-county area along the St. Croix River in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Our purpose is to limit the spread of invasive plant species through targeted grazing. We are contracted for services by municipalities, government agencies, associations, and homeowners. The average site is two acres and we have completed as many as 40 acres with one contract. The goats typically work on more than 100 acres in a season, from mid May to mid October. The goats are contained by portable energized net fencing which is the standard for rotational graziers and targeted grazing operations.

Summary:

A technology is available that could expand regenerative agriculture, help mitigate climate change, and increase food system resilience. The current tools lead to financial, physical, and quality of life sacrifices that significantly limit the biomimicry potential of the most natural management and movement of livestock. A virtual fence system is a device placed on an animal that gives cues to the animal about the allowable perimeter area. These devices can mimic herd movement as natural predators would with wildlife. The device sends a signal to the network about its location and the program sends the device information in response. In its simplest application, graziers can move a herd of animals while sitting at home. The technology has been demonstrated effective in other countries, with thousands in use worldwide. What needs to be tested is the available technology in our local environment. We will test key issues of labor, containment, and setting with devices on 30 goats, one of the most challenging species from a containment perspective. When the technology is established it replaces physical fences, reduces labor, and leads to revolutionary advances in rotational grazing, targeted grazing, silvopasture, firebreaks, and improved soil retention and water quality on non-arable land.

Project Objectives:
Overall long-term objectives:
1. Evaluate the feasibility of a virtual fence to contain goats and other livestock in rotational grazing, targeted grazing, and silvopasture applications.
2. Explore the financial sustainability of the technology as compared to current technologies.
3. Educate other farmers to help them establish virtual fence systems.  
 
Objectives for this grant:
1. Test collars on 30 goats for 300 days in changing weather conditions and paddock areas. 
2. Compare data of successful and unsuccessful containment circumstances in virtual fences and portable net fences.
3. Record time and labor associated with virtual fences and portable net fences. 

Cooperators

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  • Cherrie Nolden (Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

In the latter half of 2020 we worked with an inventor based out of Stillwater, Minnesota to discuss the potential of utilizing his virtual fence dog collar technology as a possible containment solution for goats. During the winter of 2021 we learned that the technology was being acquired by another company and that it would not be possible to continue the collaboration. We reached out to NoFence, a company based out of Norway. They are the only company in the world producing and marketing a virtual fence collar specifically made for goats. The collars are currently being sold in Norway, the United Kingdom, and Ireland but are not yet available in the United States. We reached out to them to explain our project to test virtual fencing with goats. They said they were in the beginning stages of allowing research projects in North America and we were ultimately accepted to trial the product. With approval from SARE to change vendors we moved forward on our project. 

 

Due to global computer chip shortages we spent most of the year learning about the product and attending research webinars put on by NoFence. We learned that the majority of research being done on virtual fence technology is being applied to cattle herds less than 50 head in size. We also learned that our operation would be the first in North America to test the collars on goats. 

 

There are two components to the technology. The first is a collar that the animal wears, which consists of a rubber strap, metal chain, and a unit housing the battery. The second is a phone application which allows the user to set the desired boundaries. It records movement and sends alerts when a boundary has been breached. Each collar is displayed in the mobile application identifying individual animals and any corresponding data. The warning sound is applied when near the boundary and an electric pulse equivalent to 3 kilovolts is administered through the chain when the animal ignores the audible warning noises, which become progressively louder and higher in pitch. With the collar unit having two solar panels, the battery lasts two or more months without external charging, according to the company. In our experience so far this is true but further testing this year will tell more. 

 

We received three collars in September of 2021 to test connectivity of the cellular network. We tested 11 locations in a 80 mile radius from Minneapolis, MN. Six of the locations had good connectivity, four had no connectivity, and one had intermittent connectivity. After explaining these results to NoFence we were told that the collars were currently on the 2G network and that they needed to be upgraded to the 4G network. The collars were updated to the 4G service remotely from the 2G network and did not require us to upload any software via computer or phone. Once the collars were upgraded to the 4G service all testing locations had good signal allowing the collars to operate in a normal mode. It should be noted that the collars do not need cellular reception for successful animal containment. As long as the defined area has been loaded to the collar in a good network area, the containment portion uses GPS technology. Some features are inaccessible when there is no cellular coverage due to the collar not communicating with the app and so it is therefore not ideal to operate them without it. However, low cell coverage will not impact the containment. Since GPS is more reliable than network coverage, this brings a higher level of confidence to the producer.

 

(Left: With 2G service, Right: With 4G service)

By the middle of October 2021 we received the remaining 27 collars needed for the original proposed group of 30 goats. We selected a prairie managed by a homeowners association in Bayport, Minnesota as the first test site. Following the instructions by NoFence, we set up a four sided area using net fencing to act as our physical fence. Using the app we designated a virtual fence boundary that exceeded the net fence by 100 feet on three sides. The virtual fence boundary line was made so that the goats would be contained in ¼ of the total area of four acres. The remaining ¾ of the area was available in case the goats breached the containment area and ran forward, giving them ample space to slow down and possibly turn around to re-enter the set containment area. The training information explained the animals learn better if they only have to approach one virtual fence line at first. The goats were breeds classified as meat goats (Kiko, Boer, Nubian, and Myotonic) and were a mix of wethers and does, all adults over the age of two. The goats selected were proven trained on electric net fencing but had no prior experience with virtual fencing or any collar system. 

 

Our hypothesis was that the goats would ignore the noise and receive the electric pulse, either sending them forward in motion or making them turn around. What we found was that the goats heard the noise and slowly turned back, which was a very desirable behavior because it meant we initially controlled them with only the noise. Eventually they would learn to associate the noise with the electric pulse. However, the goats were very calm the entire time. We predicted we would watch the goats for about eight hours before being comfortable leaving the collars on the goats. But it was clear that the technology was functioning properly and because monitoring could continue via the app, we stopped monitoring the goats after only 45 minutes. This proved to be a reasonable decision as no goats had the status of escaped reported on the app in the following hours. 

 

Our second test site in Center City, MN was selected so that we could utilize a large tract of land with additional variables such as water, marsh, and tree cover. We set up a 52 acre virtual area with no physical fences. To ease the training process for the goats, we chose to use a peninsula for this area so the goats only had one virtual fence boundary line and three natural boundary lines since our goats do not cross water. Within that area we added two exclusion zones; a vineyard and a child’s fort area. We did not want the goats to have access to these areas. This was successful as no goats were located inside these areas at any time. The landowner eventually requested to have the goats within the dormant vineyard originally excluded. This proved to be a good test to see if the goats would attempt to cross a boundary line they may have a memory of. It took about 12 hours for the first goat to enter the vineyard area and all remaining goats had been in the area by the 24 hour mark. 

 

We now consider 30 goats to be trained to the collars. The next phase of our research project will be to have a control group contained by net fences and a group contained by the virtual fence system. We will resume this in late winter 2022.

 

Research results and discussion:

Since we are not comparing the training time of a net fence versus the training time of a virtual fence our first priority was to train goats to the virtual fence so that the containment could be compared evenly. The goats used in this project all had proven containment and training to net fencing. The collars have a function that starts in training mode and switches to a normal operating mode after a set of behaviors is recorded, and so when the system decided the training phase was over we also considered the goats trained. There were only two occurrences where the goats breached the virtual fence boundary. Both instances occurred at the second test site when the landowner went on a jogging loop with a portion of the path in the designated goat area. The goats interpreted the running human as something to follow and run behind. It created a stampede effect, causing all the goats to run through the virtual fence line. The first instance of this happening the goats went about 200 feet beyond the line and then returned to the containment area with no human guidance. The second time they kept on a path west about a half mile and we had to physically lead them back to the containment area. The collars are designed to let the goats back into the containment area without future electric pulse, and so there is no hesitation by the animals to do so. There were no other instances of any other fence breaches reported on the app, or witnessed by us or the landowners. 

 

The time and labor associated with setting the perimeter of the virtual fence is under one minute, whether it is a half acre or the 52 acre area of the second test site. The main question of time yet to be explored is whether the virtual fence system requires more on-site visits than what is typical of a net fence. Net fencing takes more time to set up but the virtual fence may require more checks on batteries, goats separated from the herd, or other unknown considerations. 

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Tours
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

43 Farmers
3 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:
Date Outreach Type Description
December 2021 Newsletter Article Wrote an article for Hoofprints, a quarterly newsletter for members of the Cashmere Goat Association. One Small Step for Goat, One Giant Leap for Agriculture, Hoofprints, Volume 30, Issue 3. 
January 17, 2022 Farm Visit Joined NoFence team at Voss Farm in Paynesville, MN to learn about Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge grazing project and answer questions about how virtual fencing may aid in project. 
January 18, 2022 Farm Visit Leaders from NoFence visited our farm and we shared our project and how we are incorporating virtual fencing in our operation. 
January 22, 2022 Conference Presentation Presented on virtual fencing project at the 30th Annual GrassWorks Grazing Conference. There were 37 attendees in the session. 

Future outreach plans include two field days, guest speaking on a podcast, and additional conference talks. 

Learning Outcomes

5 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

The initial testing and training showed us that containment was only one element of the virtual fence, and by itself that is an immense stand-alone technology. But there were features of the NoFence collar in particular that added to improved overall management. For instance, the system alerts your phone if an individual animal has been motionless for more than 4 hours. You may already have a sense that something is wrong with an animal because you have a live report of their positioning, which shows if they are away from the main herd, possibly indicating a health concern. There is no need to count the animals because each animal has a collar reporting so you always know that all are accounted for. Should you need to find a particular animal in a mob or away from the herd you can have the collar make an audible noise (a different one from the boundary warning noise). Additionally, the app reports on the activity levels and notes if an animal is more or less active over time. 

We sought to remove the labor of a portable fence system by implementing a virtual fence system for goats. Fences have always been a barrier of entry to farming, and even existing operations make fencing decisions based on accessibility or ease of installation. We are trying to imagine a world where the best place to manage livestock is best for the plants and the animals, not the humans. A virtual fence system is almost endless in opening new forms of revenue and improving quality of life. Removing the labor of traditional or portable fence systems allows season extension, better management of herd health, and reduces fence upkeep and replacement. In accessing terrains previously not possible, we can reduce the spread of invasive plant species and improve soil health. When goats are considered for a restoration project, it is often the case that machinery or other traditional options have been ruled out. When we cannot access areas with goats due to portable net fencing constraints, there are often no more remaining options and the vegetation is left untouched. Our farm is restricted in growth by the cost of fencing and the cost of labor. We hope to share our experiences with a broader range of operations to demonstrate how they can create new areas of forage that were previously impractical due to fencing, time, or additional money. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.