▶️ Educated cows, GPS join forces for wildfire land management on High Desert


REDMOND, Ore. — A new research project by Oregon State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture explores the unique combination of global positioning satellites, mobile cell towers, and educated cattle wearing shock collars. The study aims to revolutionize rangeland management and wildfire prevention in the Pacific Northwest.

Within the sagebrush sea east of Bend, on the northern edge of the Great Basin, you will find plenty of peace and quiet. Until collaring day, when the cows receive necklaces that track their movements and teach important behaviors.

“There’s a foreign object around their neck, and they don’t know what to do,” said Chad Boyd, research leader, USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center. “Most of them kind of run and buck a little.”

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Each cow underwent a training process receiving audible warnings, learning to avoid specific directions of travel. If they persisted in those directions, they would receive mild electrical stimulation.

The collars worn by the cows use radio frequency to communicate with a base station, which transmits data via cellular antennas to the cloud. This innovative system, connected to mobile cell towers and GPS, enables the creation of virtual fences that researchers can adjust.

“We don’t have to rely on hard fences to keep them in that area,” Boyd said. “We can actually create fences anywhere we want on the landscape using virtual fence technology.”

Afterward, the cows enter training to familiarize themselves with the audible cues and learn to respect the electric jolt. Once trained, they become valuable assets in managing wildfires.

“Our challenge is to show how that can be done in an ecologically responsible way and a strategic way,” Boyd said.

A 300-acre plot, abundant in native and invasive grass species and prone to fast-burning fires, was chosen for the study.

By strategic placement, the cattle create firebreaks by eating up the dried grasses in remote and vulnerable areas. These safe zones can serve as bases for firefighters and help prevent wildfire spread.

Researchers are still learning about the effectiveness of virtual fencing and the optimal buffer zones for audio and electrical cues in different landscapes. However, potential applications extend far beyond rangeland management.

“Virtual fence is one more tool in the toolbox for those land managers,” said Dr. David Bohnert, director, Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, Oregon State University.

Chad Boyd says he believes the study has a lot of room for growth.

While the project is in its early stages, initial results and future projections are promising. As virtual fence technology advances, it may revolutionize how livestock is managed and contribute to environmental sustainability in Eastern Oregon and beyond.


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