Testing virtual fence systems for fire fuel management

Progress report for FW23-421

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2023: $23,309.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2025
Host Institution Award ID: G282-23-W9982
Grant Recipient: Cuyama Lamb LLC
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Jack Anderson
Cuyama Lamb LLC
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Project Information


Precise grazing management is a powerful tool for effective fire fuel management and can benefit diverse ecologies and support localized meat and fiber production. Many of our most essential ecological and fuel management areas however are extremely difficult to fence and may even be impractical for herding. The difficulty of management and extensive labor required, on-top of new labor regulations, is pressing the limits of viability for many grazing operators to meet this new opportunity.

We will use 80 GPS collars to test a group of ewes in a diversity of contexts, comparing the results, in labor, containment and effectively reaching the goals of the treatment, to other groups managed in electric fence rotation. If the virtual fence is more effective, or slightly less effective with an extreme reduction in labor, we will be able to compare the cost of equipment and maintenance with the cost of intensive labor over time and determine how viable an investment in this technology will be for producers and service providers depending on their contexts.

If this technology proves effective it has the capacity to greatly increase the opportunity to use livestock where often herbicide, mastication or other intensive mechanical removal jobs have been the only option. It also has the potential to create opportunities for intensive livestock rotation without expensive and wildlife inhibiting fencing, or labor intensive systems for producers.

We will work with our extension agent, local non-profits and relevant industry and fuel management partners to disseminate the results locally and state wide. We will make a presentation with photos and details that will be shared with these stakeholders and shared on our website, and they will also share the information in their channels and potentially participate in a webinar.

Project Objectives:

The objective of the project is to test the viability of virtual fence technology for managing fire fuel in invaded grasslands and steep shrub communities with grazing animals in Santa Barbara County. Currently there is a large opportunity to link food and fiber production, with large scale fuels and environmental management using prescribed herbivory practices. The current limitations mostly revolve around the extremely labor intensive practices of constantly moving animals, monitoring for effective ecological outcomes and moving through extreme or unnavigable terrain where fuel management is often the most important or where invasive weeds are stubborn. Virtual fencing systems, or gps controlled shock collars, could potentially solve this problem, but adoption of the technology is expensive and risky if it proves to have glitches, require more labor intensive management of collars, or be ineffective.
Cuyama Lamb is perfectly poised to test this technology. We have just received a contract to service 1k acres per year for Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council. Many of the sites we have to manage will become part of a regular fuel management regime. However, fencing and labor needs for these projects will be extensive. We have also just been accepted to the No Fence virtual fence pilot program and have an opportunity that many producers do not, to try 100 units.
If we are able to actualize this opportunity not only will we be able to make a determination on future investments in the technology, but we will be able to demonstrate and present our findings to other operators and fuel management agencies as an exciting new tool for managing fuel and sustainable livestock production.



Date Activities Team Member

November 2023

Receive collars Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb

February - March 2024

Familiarize ourselves with user manuals, onboarding videos, troubleshoot charging batteries, familiarize team with NoFence app Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb

March 2024

Place first collars on animals and train them to system on mild terrain (first trial).

Troubleshoot issues and take note of issues we run into.

Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb

April 2024

First social media post Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb and Matthew Shapero
May 2024

Move animals to moderate terrain (second trial). Document.

Continue social media posts.

Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb and Matthew Shapero
July 2024

Test animals in difficult terrain (third trial). Document.

Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb and Matthew Shapero
June/July/August 2024 Continue social media posts. Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb
August - October 2024 Continue to rotate animals on NoFence for fire fuel mitigation. Continue to document and troubleshoot as needed. Track battery life and other relevant data available through the app or observable on the ground. Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb
November-December 2024 Gather material in preparation for presentation of season using NoFence Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb
January 2025 Create presentation, share social media posts, choose date for Field Day Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb
February 2025 Launch presentation, announce and publicize Field Day Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb
March 2025 Share data and webinar on web page, continue to publicize Field Day on social media and targeted outreach Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb
April 2025 Host educational demonstration and Field Day for producers, prepare final report Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb and Matthew Shapero
May 2025 Submit Final Report Jack Anderson, Cuyama Lamb and Matthew Shapero

Note: All activities are limited by the regular operations and seasonal considerations of the livestock and company. Timeline is designed to measure more variable needs and circumstances, and generate interest over a longer period of time.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Jack Anderson - Producer
  • Matthew Shapero - Technical Advisor


Materials and methods:

Research objectives:

Test the viability of GPS controlled shock collars for use in a fire fuel management context. Collars must achieve:

Effective Containment. Animal movement will be compared to the containment level of sheep in electric fence with the potential for equipment failure or animal breakout in both instances. Ecological goals will be set for both the virtual fence and the control group and compared.

Reduced Labor. Labor of monitoring, applying the collars to the animals, changing out defective equipment, charging, or unpredicted labor needs will be compared with the daily needs of deploying electric fence in similar contexts.

Reduced Projected Costs. All costs of associated equipment and subscription fees in the GPS collar system will be compared to the costs in Labor, and electric fence systems including damaged or replaced equipment projected over a 3 year term.

We will purchase 100 GPS controlled collars designed for livestock from No Fence, who has agreed to enroll us in their pilot program for $120 a unit. Experimentation will take place in three locations, all of which are contracted for vegetation removal by the Fire Safe Council of Santa Barbara County.

The team will identify three locations for side-by side trial of the system in different vegetation types. We will choose the sites to reflect a diversity and spectrum of what a contract grazer may be asked to do in a fire fuel management context. Sites will include, annual dominate grasslands with moderate grade, diverse mixture of shrub and weed types of moderate to extreme grade, and dense mature shrub types  with moderate to extreme grade. A control  group will be managed under electric fence or herding methods. 

Containment will be measured in both systems through documented instances of escape. Notes will be made as to whether escapes are single animals or whole herd escape events and document the time and lengths it takes to return animals to containment. Should a majority of animals continuously escape designated areas, they will be removed and the test will be considered a failure. No system is perfect so expected breakouts in electric fence will be an important comparison to realistic gains from the virtual fence system.

To measure effectiveness of the treatment and ecological goals, residual dry matter measurements will be collected before and after both treatments to measure effective percent of dry matter removed. Photo documentation will also supplement measured findings with visual confirmation of fuel removal and space in shrub layers.

All labor hours of both system will be counted and compared using a time clock app, including any management of collars, pulling on or off, maintaining, trouble shooting of individual units, collars catching on brush or dealing with escapes. Comparisons will be made in the training of animals to the virtual fence system and the labor it takes to train animals to electric fence.

Cost of both systems will be measured based on cost of equipment and labor for implementation of grazing management goals in each system. Costs for electric fence will be for a standard netting system and electric fence chargers. Costs for the virtual fence system will include cost of each unit as well as shipping and processing. If the units fail or persist after three years we will note their success or failure, and take into account longevity of equipment in both systems. Labor costs for the GPS units will include putting the collars on and any troubleshooting or escapes. A yearly fee will also be compared to the labor of stretching fence out and retrieving it. Each trial will last one to two weeks, and expenses will be projected over a three year term for both groups and categorized both in whole expenses and in a per animal unit expenses.

Other grazing management strategies such as electric netting and herding will be examined in comparison to asses viability of collars compared to realistic alternative approaches to fire fuel management with prescribed herbivory. Previous studies on virtual fence systems has preliminary success in pasture settings, but more research is needed to demonstrate effectiveness in harder vegetation and slope settings. There has been no study the author could find that referenced predator impact on the new technology. We will document the predator pressure in wild land environments and will whether a dog on a collar is sufficient to protect from basic coyote and lion pressure.

In order to do this work we will utilize 100 collar units, including one guardian dog, as well as a tablet with software that is capable of effectively mapping and controlling the units. We will also use electric net fence systems that we already have and herding dogs for moving outside of fence for the animals in the control. Each fence paddock will have one 3 joule charger run on a 12volt battery with a 40 watt solar panel. Each herder will have a time clock software on their personal phones to accurately measure when they are managing sheep or issues in one system vs. the other. They will also document the progress before and after moving animals. We will use a one meter square PVC unit to measure RDM and clip forage with a pair of pruners to avoid removal of roots or un-grazeable material.

Comparing all this data we will asses over a three year period if the Virtual Fence systems are a viable solution for fire fuel mitigation projects in the West. We will also utilize the collars, where applicable, outside of the direct side-by-side analysis to have robust experience of actually operating with the technology in that three years to share with other producers and contractors. We will carefully compare benefits of traditional management and draw a conclusion that includes, effectiveness, cost and labor analysis, appropriate application and the quality of life improvements of the owners and operators.

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

Recommendations for sustainable agricultural production and future research:
  1. The arrival of your NoFence collars could be delayed. At the time of our study, collars were being shipping exclusively from Norway. There are many hurdles to this process of international shipping. Other factors contributing to delays are the limited number of collars available. It may be more realistic to consider your expected start date more of a hope than a plan.
  2. Preparation for using the collars can begin long before arrival. While it can be challenging to absorb all the onboarding materials and user manuals before getting your hands on the physical collars and chargers, as a user you'll probably want to watch/read these multiple times. In our experience, familiarizing ourselves with the onboarding materials ahead of time was helpful. Understanding that collars come 30% charged and will require charging before use, getting your WD-40 and Q-tips (or a WD-40 pen) ready for cleaning battery connections, and getting used to using the app are all helpful things that make you better prepared to receive the collars. Of course most of the troubleshooting can't happen until you try using the collars, but knowing how everything should work is a helpful place to start.

Education and Outreach

1 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:

We plan to host an educational Field Trip for producers and other interested operators in early 2025.

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.