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Virtual fencing helps Colorado rancher keep track of cattle herd

Deborah Fitch grew tired of losing sight of her cows in the mountains. She found a solution with GPS collars and a virtual fence.

PARSHALL, Colo. — When a Colorado rancher moved to the mountains, she suddenly had to play hide and seek with her cows – and found a solution to her wandering herd through a new kind of technology.

“It’s really easy for them to hide," said Deborah Fitch, standing in tall grass, surrounded by rolling hills, ravines and aspen groves. "It's not fun looking for cows."

In 2020, Fitch and her husband, Cameron, moved their family and their cattle from Franktown to Parshall in Grand County.

“We thought this is going to be a lot of fun for the cows to have a new environment, and Day One was amazing," Deborah Fitch said. "Day Two, we go out to look for the cows, check on them, can’t find them. We’re like, ‘where did the cows go?’ ”

The Fitches and their neighbors searched for hours on foot, horseback, ATVs and dirt bikes. On more than one occasion, the cows ended up at the Hot Sulphur Springs Resort and Spa.

"That was always a fun phone call,” Fitch said.

Marie Stiles, a rangeland management specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, works with ranchers who obtain permits for their cattle to graze on Forest Service allotments in the summer. She suggested the Fitches test out new virtual fencing technology.

"It's a real simple management tool," Stiles said.

The Fitches chose a company called Vence to install a couple of antenna towers and outfit their cattle with GPS collars.

The collars and towers create a virtual fence that ranchers can control from their smartphones. If a cow strays from the virtual fence line, a sound cue will warn them to stop before the collar sends a slight shock to the animal.

Unlike traditional fencing, a virtual fence can go anywhere, allowing cattle to graze where they're needed most – and to keep them away from where they shouldn't be, like from the East Troublesome Fire burn scar.

“That fire literally came right down to the road here," Stiles said, pointing from a dirt road to a section of the burn scar.

Recently, Stiles and Fitch used a virtual fence to allow cattle to walk and graze a small section of land where the East Troublesome Fire burned 20 months ago.

"This hoofing action helps to break that crust or break up that little bit of waxy surface, so when the rains come, the water can actually infiltrate the soils and help to stimulate the grass growth," Stiles said. “We have grasses that are growing that look almost as good as the unburned side.”

Stiles credited some of the regrowth to collared cows and a virtual fence, but she said she also understands some ranchers might not be sold on the new technology.

“I come from a ranching background and farming background," Stiles said. "When I first was hearing about it, I was also skeptical."

The technology is now being used in a couple of other areas of Colorado.

Deborah Fitch said the technology will save her family time and money from installing and repairing traditional fencing. She also hopes it will keep her from playing hide and seek with a herd.

"We’ll continue to use it," she said. "We’re believers in it. We think it’s a great management tool for us and for our style of ranching.”

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