Come Rain or Shine

Wire Up Those Cows! New Gadgets For An Old Profession

November 17, 2021 USDA Southwest Climate Hub & DOI Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center Season 2 Episode 14
Wire Up Those Cows! New Gadgets For An Old Profession
Come Rain or Shine
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Come Rain or Shine
Wire Up Those Cows! New Gadgets For An Old Profession
Nov 17, 2021 Season 2 Episode 14
USDA Southwest Climate Hub & DOI Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center

In this episode, Drs. Sheri Spiegal, Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e, and Matt McIntosh roll up their sleeves and dig into answering some of the questions that producers have asked the team about the precision ranching technologies currently under research as part of the Sustainable Southwest Beef Project.

If you’re just tuning in for the first time and would like to know more about the Sustainable Southwest Beef Project, we recommend listening to our August 2020 episode called “The Sustainable Southwest Beef Project” that describes the mission and goals of this USDA-NIFA funded five-year Coordinated Agriculture Project (grant #2019-69012-29853).

If you’re enjoying this podcast, please consider rating us and/or leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts, Podcast Addict, or
Podchaser Thanks!

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Affiliate links:
Sustainable Southwest Beef Project (NIFA Grant #2019-69012-29853):
DOI Southwest CASC:
USDA Southwest Climate Hub:

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Drs. Sheri Spiegal, Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e, and Matt McIntosh roll up their sleeves and dig into answering some of the questions that producers have asked the team about the precision ranching technologies currently under research as part of the Sustainable Southwest Beef Project.

If you’re just tuning in for the first time and would like to know more about the Sustainable Southwest Beef Project, we recommend listening to our August 2020 episode called “The Sustainable Southwest Beef Project” that describes the mission and goals of this USDA-NIFA funded five-year Coordinated Agriculture Project (grant #2019-69012-29853).

If you’re enjoying this podcast, please consider rating us and/or leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts, Podcast Addict, or
Podchaser Thanks!

Follow us on Twitter @RainShinePod
Never miss an episode!
Sign up to get an email alert whenever a new episode publishes
Have a suggestion for a future episode?
Please tell us!

Affiliate links:
Sustainable Southwest Beef Project (NIFA Grant #2019-69012-29853):
DOI Southwest CASC:
USDA Southwest Climate Hub:

Sarah LeRoy: [00:00:00] Welcome to Come Rain or Shine, podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub and the USGS Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center or Southwest CASC. I'm Sarah LeRoy, Science Applications and Communications Coordinator for the Southwest CASC. 

Emile Elias: [00:00:17] and I'm Emile Elias, Director of the Southwest Climate Hub. Here, we highlight stories to share the most recent advances in climate science, weather in climate adaptation, and innovative practices to support resilient landscapes and communities. 

Sarah LeRoy: [00:00:32] We believe that sharing some of the most innovative, forward-thinking and creative climate science and adaptation will strengthen our collective ability to respond to even the most challenging impacts of climate change in one of the hottest and driest regions of the world.

Sarah LeRoy: [00:00:50] The content of this episode is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as advocacy for any of the technologies or strategies discussed. 

Emile Elias: [00:01:05] Thanks to Sheri Spiegal for guest hosting this episode on The Sustainable Southwest Beef project.

Sheri Spiegal: [00:01:11] The Sustainable Southwest Beef project is a five-year coordinated agricultural project with the goal of supporting and enhancing the sustainability of beef cattle production in the Southwest. I'm Sheri Spiegal, Co-PI on the project. And today I'm joined by Dr.  Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e and Dr. Matt McIntosh to talk about the precision ranching technologies being explored as part of the project.

So hi Dr. Shelemia and Dr. Matt, how's it going? 

Matt McIntosh: [00:01:44] Thanks for having us. 

Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e: [00:01:46] Yeah, thank you. Thank you for having us.

Sheri Spiegal: [00:01:48] Nice to be with you today.

Matt McIntosh: [00:01:49] Likewise.

Sheri Spiegal: [00:01:51] So Shelemia. Can you please tell us a little bit about your research with the project? 

Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e: [00:01:57] Yes, Dr. Spiegal. So yes, as presented, my name is Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e, it's a mouthful,  and I'm a research associate at New Mexico State University.

I got my Master's and my PhD degree here as well. And I was involved with the project pretty early on during my master's and PhD, I was pretty much involved with the breed comparison portion of the project, which we were pretty much studying grazing behavior models, spring interaction, heat tolerance, and even the use of UAV as a monitoring tool for cattle in extensive kind of ranching systems.

So I would say my profession is more like animal, plant, and climate interaction with the use of telemetry devices. And I was also very fortunate to continue with the project for my postdoc position, which I'm currently holding. And I, in this position, I am more involved with the precision agriculture, which pretty much is a platform that will enable digitalization of the ranching management and the things that we are looking at are pretty much are animal monitoring kind of devices. So these are wearable telemetry devices that will be transmitting data in real time, we are also looking at virtual fence devices or virtual herding devices, which are pretty much controlling dispersal of these animals without the use of a physical boundary. 

In the project also we are going to be exploring 3D imagery in automation of body conditioning score. But we also know that for ranch managers to be able to make decisive actions they will also need some environmental kind of variable or environmental context kind of variable. So we will be deploying some water level sensors, rain-gauge sensors.

And our overall goal is to translate that information into a dashboard application for the ranchers to make a decisive action in the operation. So I think that makes a summary of what I'm doing and I hope I did not take a lot of your time.

Sheri Spiegal: [00:04:17] No, that's wonderful. And we, the project is so lucky to have you, and thank you for that explanation. We might revisit one of the pieces just to review the types of real time telemetry that we're looking at with the cattle. But, and maybe to explain that a little bit more and I'd love to learn more about the environmental data as well. So maybe Matt, as you tell us what you're up to in the project, you could explain those things a little bit as well. 

Matt McIntosh: [00:04:48] Yeah, that sounds great. And thank you so much. Shelemia for that really great overview of all the research we've been working on. My own background is very similar to Shelemia and that we both come up in the same lab.

I also got my master's and PhD at New Mexico State University. And I'm currently staying on as a research associate to work on this project. And some of my research is very similar to Shelemia's  also working with the breed comparison study and some other vegetation type datasets. And with particular regard to the precision ranching aspect, some of my PhD work was basically focused on pilot testing the precision ranching kit we've liked or as the Scotts like to call it, our Scottish counterparts, basically pilot-testing this low range wide area network precision ranching system in the desert. What that means: low range, wide area network is a LoRa Wan system. And so that's the particular platform that we're using, to try and develop this type of technology. And it's really well suited, especially to the harsh or desert environment where there's not a lot of cellular service or other types of network service access. So it's basically a low cost, low battery input type system that can both collect and transmit sort of small data packets back to a network hub, basically.

And so in my PhD, for instance, we basically pilot tested this system. We were able to mount one of these at New Mexico State University's Chihuahuan Desert Ranch and Research Center, which we colloquially called the College Ranch. And so we tracked 43 beef cows across about 10,000 acres over a three month period last spring and summer.

And it was really great. This gave us a lot of insights about how the technology works and sort of areas that we can tweak, algorithms we can develop, sort of make it more suitable and useful for producers. And just like Shelemia has said, the ultimate end point is to produce a dashboard that ranchers will be able to access and sort of evaluate their cows or those environmental sensors in real time.

Sheri Spiegal: [00:06:56] Fantastic. Okay. So you mentioned a kit. When the kit comes together and it's like the way that it's envisioned now, when it's done, am I correct in thinking that it'll include telemetry or a way to track the cattle in real time, virtual fencing, and then environmental data about rain gauges. And then also sensors or information about how much water is in the troughs.

Is that about, in the water troughs? Is that about right? 

Matt McIntosh: [00:07:29] That's perfect. I'll let Shelemia answer the second, but I, and I don't want to oversell it, but I think sky's the limit in terms of how far we can take this thing. Our objectives are exactly like what you said: precision, grazing. So we want to be able to track the cows telemetrically using GPS’s, and then be able to derive sort of behavior variables from those movements and also realistic, biological explanations that coincide with those sorts of behaviors. And then also, like you said, the environmental sensors, et cetera, but basically the LoRa Wan system in particular is ubiquitous with the internet of things or IOT as most people might know it. And so in that circumstance, There's almost an endless amount of sensors that you could potentially deploy.

So at some point we might be able to put sensors on gates to be able to ensure the gates are open or closed or so on and so forth. But that's getting a little bit in the weeds. 

Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e: [00:08:31] I believe Matthew did an excellent summary there. So yes, the project is actually analyzing I would say two platforms. There's the internet of things platform, which Matthew just described which are, an ecosystem of itself that involves sensors, the data transmission.

And we are also looking at the data translation component of it. And Matthew did an excellent summary of it, but with the virtual fencing device, it's pretty much another project that we will be looking at and it's on its own. Meaning that for instance, in our project with the virtual fence devices that we will be deploying it's going to be using a different communications clearance using cellular communication, but there are other virtual fencing or virtual herding devices out there that are using different other communication schemes. And with a virtual fence kind of platform it's a mature platform, meaning that the device, the software, and also even the translation of the data has already been done by these companies.

So it's a mature platform where as with the internet of things network, it's a platform that we are part of the development portion of it meaning that, not only do we have to merge the companies that will be compatible to each other, but the overall theme is to make sure that all the sensors that we will be deploying on these ranches will be merged into one platform that will be the dashboard application.

Sheri Spiegal: [00:10:11] That's really exciting stuff. I know that there's a lot of interest I've heard in all of these products and this technological development that you guys are talking about among researchers, among educators, and among producers. So this is really exciting. And speaking of producers, I'm wondering how you see this research as being helpful to producers in the Southwest.

And this is a question for both of you, so jump in if you have a response. 

Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e: [00:10:40] So as explained by Matthew there, a lot of industries are moving into the big data kind of paradigm shift which will be involving these internet of things kind of platform. And, for a summary, it's pretty much being able to put sensors on different equipment out there and monitor them in real time.

And we were thinking that these kinds of platforms could also revolutionize animal production in extensive animal production in our system here. So what we are thinking of is that with the digitalization of ranching practices in the Southwest United States, it might increase the competitive advantages of these ranches out there solving underlying issues like animal welfare, traceability, but also preserving resources that are pretty scarce in the Southwest United States. And all these factors also feed into underlying issues of future consumers. So with these kinds of platforms, we are envisioning a rancher's ability to pretty much address all these issues in a more sustainable way.

Sheri Spiegal: [00:11:59] Wonderful. Thank you and Matt, any follow up there? 

Matt McIntosh: [00:12:02] I think Shelemia did an excellent job. And one thing that my, my mind went to was that we're talking about precision grazing or precision ranching systems, and it's sort of within a larger umbrella of precision farming. And so other parts of, of the agricultural industry you have already been using precision technologies, particularly like intensive crop management or more intensive livestock management systems, for instance, pork or dairy, systems where the animals are sort of confined within a building.

And I started to talk about this earlier. One of the big challenges for beef producers in particular is the low overhead so that they don't have a big return on investment to work with to begin with compared to a lot of those other Ag. industries. And then additionally, the fact that, most of the Western beef production systems of course, are in these really extensive rangelands where again, you have limited access to a cellular network or internet in general.

And so this could be a really nice tool for overcoming those that's the grand challenges of, concept. Additionally, I think that Shelemia started to point out too and did a great job talking about how this could sort of alleviate a suite of problems associated with everything from the environment to consumer preferences.

So for instance, in the agricultural world, we know there's a dwindling workforce. There it's an aging workforce. There is increased costs associated with producing livestock. And so a system like this could potentially help with those types of systems where, you know, A, it might entice younger people to become involved with beef production or sort of extensive livestock production because of the technological component.

But that could also be really useful for an aging workforce, where as opposed to having to go out and find your cow all the time like ranchers commonly do, our objective is to be able to identify those particular behaviors or sort of behavior anomalies in real time. So you're getting this feedback on a dashboard or on your cell phone.

And so a producer instead of having to go out and look for their cows all the time, or identify problems from horseback, they're going to have, hence precision, a precise metric to be able to determine what's going on, what's wrong. And then be able to mediate whatever is happening in a much quicker fashion than they can currently, or that's the sort of grand hope.

And then of course, that sort of waterfalls or translates into being useful for a suite of other things, associated with climate change or associated with the environment, because now you'll be able to identify where your cows are and then potentially, mitigate how they're grazing or move them in a more immediate fashion, as opposed to, when I think about producers, especially here in the Southwest, I know a lot of them will spend up to a week sometimes just trying to locate cows before they can bring them back to work with them or move them to a separate pasture. So we're hoping that, just even just the pinpointing where they are could alleviate a lot of the stresses associated with ranching them currently.

And then of course, like Shelemia pointed out. You have this entire thing of consumer demand. And so you know, younger consumers and middle-class consumers are all interested in sort of the welfare of the animals. So that's another huge component of the thing that we're trying to do here. So again, if you can identify aberrant behaviors, you can, again, more immediately mediate whatever that problem is.

And hopefully take care of the animal increases welfare. The increased animal welfare is great for everybody. I know that producers are particularly concerned with that. The animal ultimately gains more weight, or is more productive because of increased welfare and the consumer will also be able to reap the rewards of knowing that the food that they're consuming was raised with the highest possible care.

Sheri Spiegal: [00:16:06] Nice. Excellent points guys. I would also, I just want to add to that idea about animal welfare and just the experience of animals on rangelands and of people on rangelands. I think part of the work of this project, the overall project is really linking what happens on the pasture level or on the ranch level all the way through the supply chain so consumers can know more about where their food is coming from and how that food was raised. And I know that's an increasing interest of a lot of consumers across the board. So, that's why for me, it's really exciting working in this integrated, coordinated agricultural project to really be able to think about this production from pasture to plate.

So I'm just going to take this moment to thank you both for your work. And so it sounds like from these comments, from both of you with this last question of some of the potential benefits for producers that you've been in contact with producers and thinking these things through with them. And I'll tell the listeners and I'll remind us that's also a major piece of this overarching project, is the coordinated agricultural project is really working with stakeholders to move this work forward and to understand concerns and to try to address those concerns.

So in that spirit, we have some questions from our stakeholders and from our customers. And I'm gonna read a few of them here and hopefully, and as the spirit moves you please let me know what you think this is, these are really for both of you. So the first three questions that we've gotten from our customers and our stakeholders have been about GPS collars or about that word, telemetry that Shelemia mentioned before. So Shelemia, could you quickly just define telemetry for us? 

Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e: [00:17:52] Yes, ma'am a quick summary of what a telemetry device is, it's pretty much sensors. And they have been used extensively in animal science and range science. For instance, a lot of people in college or agriculture, or just advertise here in New Mexico State University. For instance, we have Dr. Bailey, Dr. Cibils and others elsewhere. They have been using onboard telemetry devices. What I mean by onboard is pretty much devices that store their data within the device and then after the deployment and take them apart to download the data. So these devices pretty much what they are doing is collecting data of an individual kind of animal, for instance, GPS numbers or accelerometer devices, which are collecting GPS location and the shock of the collar as the animal is going through a grazing bout. So telemetry devices as a summary adjust sensors that can be plugged on an animal to monitor their kind of natural behaviors as they are grazing and then scientists to decipher that data either by looking at the GPS and some key performance indicator to link up to some hypothesis, like if for instance, a greenness of a pasture is below this threshold. How do these cows behave? So those are some of the studies that have been done with these telemetry devices, but in the animal science world, there are telemetry devices that can monitor pH scale of the rumen and so forth. So these are just sensory devices that collect data for scientists or any stakeholder who is interested in knowing metrics that are important on that animal as it pretty much behaves in its near natural state. 

Sheri Spiegal: [00:20:00] Sweet. Okay. Thank you for that explanation. That word always, I've always wanted to hear an explanation of that word and I appreciate that.

So thank you. Okay. So back to these questions from our stakeholders. So the first few are about GPS collars, which is a type of telemetry device. And so the first question is what is the cost for each tracking device? And when I say tracking, I mean the GPS tracking. 

Matt McIntosh: [00:20:25] I think that's great. And there's differences between these two systems.

And so the price is going to differ between the two of them. I love that that's the first question that's come from producers because like I was saying earlier, they have a really low return on investment. There's not a lot of wiggle room and money to work with, so it's really understandable that they're operating it from this really financial perspective. And if the thing isn't going to be viable, then they're not going to do it. I think that's, like goes right to the heart of Western beef producers who Shelemia and I have had the privilege to work with over the last few years. And I think they're like, so ingenuitive and so willing to be able to make something out of nothing, really. So I think that's a really great question. Stalling perhaps a little bit, because I think the cost is kind of variable at this point. We're in sort of the early stages of development and that's, they're you know, sort of fixed costs, but those are changing all the time and those are associated particularly with the hardware.

And then there's more variable costs associated with some of the software application parts. So basically the way that this LoRa Wan system works is, you need certain pieces of hardware and some things are determined by the size of your ranch or the amount of data that you're going to be transferring, or also the types of data that you're looking to collect.

So, with the GPS’s for instance, you essentially need a base station or a gateway. So this is an antenna that's linked to a base station that's basically a computer that's linked into the internet in some fashion. And so what's happening is the data that is collected on a GPS device, let's say, might be collecting X, Y fixed locations.

So just the location of an animal on top of the earth, in space, maybe temperature data, maybe proximity data, how close it is to another animal, those sorts of things. It's transmitting that data using the LoRa signal back to the antenna, and then it'll transmit that data from the antenna to the cloud.

It's processed in the cloud. And then it's sent to our data server in some fashion. So whichever server we ultimately decide upon. So for instance, the GPS that we're working with actually have built-in data server and dashboard, where we're able to access. You can see the cows moving around in real time on a Google map image.

The individual GPS devices for instance, are a little bit variable in cost, depending on how you put them together. The devices we're using currently are called industrial trackers. And they're from a company called Abeeway which is based out of Paris, France. And LoRa Wan systems, I should say are very common throughout basically all of Europe or at least Western Europe, as opposed to the United States where we haven't seen this sort of develop as rapidly.

So when you go there, for instance, you could get an industrial tracker and be able to track your cows or track commercial equipment for instance, through the city because it's an open access network. The thing that we're up against in the United States is developing the network itself.

So this is where you have to launch and maintain your own antenna. The individual device, that industrial tracker, I want to say is currently around 50 to 70 dollars, and then you have to also mount it to a collar. So we've been working with a local contractor who was actually built and developed sort of cow collars for us, and then has been able to mount those individual trackers to the collars.

And so that's sort of variable. But that said, I think the price of those individual units will continue to go down because the technology's there and is getting better and it's cheaper to replicate and produce et cetera.

But I think that's a good ballpark. So I think if you're looking at an individual collar, you're looking at anywhere from fifty to a hundred dollars, depending on how you put it together. And then of course the antenna is about, I think about a thousand dollars for the hardware and depending on the size of your ranch, you may need multiple antennas.

So the area of coverage, the presumed area of coverage at least, for these systems is between 5 and 10 miles. So it covers a really large area but of course some of our Western ranches are much more extensive than that. And so you might need, it depends, but anywhere from 5 to 10 base stations or gateways, let's say, so all those things are going make the price vary.

 So this is the typical academic way of saying it depends. 

Sheri Spiegal: [00:25:02] Especially on rangelands. It tends to depend because they're so large and diverse over space and they change over time. But it sounds to me like the collars themselves are anywhere around a hundred bucks. So including the tracker and the collars, and then the antenna or the base station are a thousand, and then you might, one might need to replicate the antenna depending on terrain.

Is that a good summary? And then, but what's really interesting, what I'm hearing from you both is that this sounds like a type, like the research itself is actually developing these tools. So you're both developing them and then learning more about them. And just by the very act of this research, perhaps this work will help to, I don't know, bring the prices down cause you're developing them further.

So do you see this as like a type of action research in that way? Like you're not just studying something, but you're actually developing it actively at the same time. 

Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e: [00:26:01] So, Matthew did a great summary there and you're right, Dr. Spiegal by saying that we are part of the development of this platform. Especially with the LoRa Wan system and that, the internet of things kind of platform.

So yes, the price tag is very variable, but I'd say people who want to adopt this device right now, maybe they should take a step farther than just looking at the cost assessment of putting this equipment down. I'll say I'll try to argue that, maybe an individual rancher should analyze his or her daily activity and see what are the benefits of me knowing exactly where my cattle is at, the assurance of where my cattle is at. If its welfare is under the normality of behaviors that are supposed to be given out by a cow. So it's pretty much we should be looking at this question farther out than just the cost analysis. It's what are the benefits of me getting this system on my ranch in alleviating even some other costs like for instance the cost of time, most ranchers who will have to have more than one job, maybe they will have to have another job in order to just maintain their overall house expenses because of what Matthew just explained with the profit margins being extremely thin in most of these Southwest ranching entities.

 So just that alleviation of time, what kind of price tag are you willing to put on being assured that your animals are well, but also to be able to locate your animals in a timely manner. And maybe there's a water trough in your ranch that is pretty faulty, that assurance that that water trough has actually got water, which is pretty far away from your headquarters location. Going to be extremely ranch specific, and especially with early adopters. And I would advise them to pretty much revise those questions instead of only looking at the costs, try to analyze what kind of benefits you will be also getting by deploying this kind of uh, platform.

Matt McIntosh: [00:28:27] I couldn't have said that better.

Sheri Spiegal: [00:28:29] Yeah, I was just saying, it's a great point. When we're talking about costs, we also have to think benefits right away, but also there's different types of costs that a producer may be avoiding by, there's monetary costs that are being paid, but then saving costs and time and stress of just knowing where the cattle are and knowing what's happening, in the farthest pasture that's cost savings, not necessarily measured with dollars.

So thank you, well said. And actually some of the stakeholder questions are about these types of trade offs. We'll get to those in a bit. So moving on. So I think actually, Matt, you covered the concern about how well the collars transmit data in rugged terrain or where there's little to no cell phone reception.

And I think you said one way to work around that is more gateways. So I think that's a pretty common concern for the ranchers on these, you know, huge ranches. And so clearly, you guys are developing some solutions for that. The other question that's come up about the collars is how many individuals in the herd need to have a GPS tracker for these technologies to be effective?

Is it possible just to collar a few individuals, or is it more advisable to collar everyone?

Matt McIntosh: [00:29:50] I think it's definitely possible to collar just a few animals, especially if you can identify who your lead animals are. So in each herd, there's sort of a dominant animal who will lead the group into a new grazing area or what have you.

So if you're, if the producer's primary concern is finding the animals and just being able to locate them, that's certainly an option. I think ideally though, we're focused on being able to collar an entire herd. Because we're really want to get to this intersection of understanding the animal welfare and the production and its sort of social network among its herd mates and then being able to translate all of that information into sort of real time useful managerial metrics.

So like being able to identify exactly when a cow's in heat or exactly when a cow’s calving or if a cow is undergoing some sort of anomalous weight loss, we want to know exactly when those things are happening. And then being able to tell a producer through the platform and immediately, Hey, this is what's up.

And then it's their decision as to whether or not they're going to mediate, or if it's something of concern. 

Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e: [00:31:03] I really liked Matthew's answer there. So it does depend on that stakeholder's question or what he or she wants to solve. And I guess in the project, we are having sensors that are animal wearable.

So these will be the GPS tracker kind of devices that Matthew was talking about. But we also have sensors that are points to many. For instance, with the 3D camera that will be automating body conditioning scores, and then these cameras being placed on strategic locations, let's say near water trough, where it will be taking pictures or short video clips of an individual animal as it approaches this water trough and pretty much through algorithms feed out what its thinking that particular cow's body conditioning score is at that particular time of monitoring.

So the question of the rancher is going to pretty much dictate what kind of sensors should be placed in that particular ranch, or how many sensors should be placed on that particular ranch. And Matthew mentioned about if it is the collaring that you are looking at deploying, animal welfare, if animal welfare is your concern then you better collar all of the individuals. So let me jump into the virtual fencing part. This part of just collaring a smaller number of individuals within the herd has been explored in the virtual fencing kind of platform. Due to the cost analysis on it. And pretty much their recommendations were put these devices on dominant kind of animals as Matthew said.

And it could be because of age, size or boldness levels. And these individuals being the ones that would influence others to go to a particular site during the grazing box or those virtual fencing kind of collars can work in that way. But there are other kinds of publications out there that pretty much said this social ranking is very dynamic and it was in the context of virtual fencing.

And the recommendation was that if you want this system to work properly, you better just collar every individual within the herd. For instance, there are studies out there that they collared every individual within the herd and one collar failed in its deployment. And this one individual cow managed to move away from that boundary that was drawn and the other herd mates followed that individual into these other locations and ignoring even the cues that these collars were providing to those that their collars were functional. So with the virtual fencing kind of platform, I would advise like for each to be effective, you have to probably collar all the individuals within the herd.

Sheri Spiegal: [00:34:15] Yeah, great point. And that goes back to the animal welfare that consumers and producers and just society in general find important. Okay. So moving onto the hot topic of virtual fencing which I know is pretty exciting, because building fence can be quite expensive and backbreaking. So this concept of virtual fencing, I know is, as I mentioned before, is really exciting to a lot of folks, but we have one question from a stakeholder about virtual fencing being utilized to do simulated cell grazing in limited water areas. And I assume that means, so cells being like smaller paddocks for more rapid rotation. Is that how you guys would interpret that question? And if so, what do you think? 

Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e: [00:34:57] Yes. So, with the virtual fencing devices, I say training part the training phase is extremely important. Meaning that you train the animal to associate the audio cue to the virtual fence kind of boundary. So I guess I better do a little summary of how these virtual fence devices work.

So with the virtual fence device, it’s a collar that is worn by the animal. It collects GPS locations, and it has a platform that a rancher can designate an area where these animals are allowed to graze on which will be just a polygon drone on a computer or a smartphone. And whenever that animal approaches these virtual kinds of boundaries, it receives cues, audio and then electric.

And the audio queuing is progressive to alert the animal as it's approaching that virtual fence. And then if it continues with that same trajectory, precedes this mild electric shock to deter it from further, moving forward into the direction of exiting that virtual paddock.

Sheri Spiegal: [00:36:19] Okay, and then just a few words, do you think it would be effective or in your work so far, is it effective for that cell type of grazing to create smaller paddocks for greater rotation? 

Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e: [00:36:35] So on the cell grazing context, I think this kind of platform is better suited for this kind of application where you have this overall permanent fence around a bigger area, and then you're designating your cows to graze these small areas within that larger fence, which will be having a physical boundary. And what I'm saying, what I'm trying to say is that these virtual fence devices, they are very promising. They will work 99% of the time. And this, this is just an estimation from my head, but that 1% is still remaining out there, meaning that the cow can exit that virtual fence boundary even after receiving all these combinations of cues.

You can look at it as negative, but also positive. For instance, what if there is a predator within your pasture, you might want to give that animal that freedom of exiting that virtual fence kind of boundary. So, it's not 100% fool proof. You need a permanent fencing, which will be probably a bigger area with a permanent fence.

And then you are doing this virtual fence, kind of block grazing within that permanent fencing. And the other part of the questions was with limited water areas. This is another thing that we are going to be looking at within our research. And it brings up this concept of hierarchical needs of an animal.

What is hierarchical needs of an animal? Pretty much a conceptual model, which says that an animal within its grazing out needs to satisfy some kind of objectives. Let's say first within that context of the animals context and the environment context, it probably needs to satisfy its hunger, then thirst, then thermal comfort, its home range and so forth.

So we are trying to see, by queuing these animals, where does it fit within these hierarchical needs? Will it forego hunger over the stimulus that it will receive from the collars when it has finished the grass within its block. And in some research they have already established that, it's really context dependent that, let's say an animal if it's extremely thirsty and it is limited by that virtual fence device, it will pretty much exit that virtual paddock to go get a drink and how these devices are also made is that it will punish an animal where it's approaching that virtual fence. And when it exits that virtual fence, it will not punish that animal when it comes back to, to just make sure that the system can still run effectively.

I would say it is built for these kinds of applications where you have a bigger permanent fencing, and then you have these virtual paddocks that you will be designating to an animal as it grazes within that bigger fenced area. 

Sheri Spiegal: [00:40:00] Okay. Fascinating stuff. Well that's great, usable information. And it's really interesting to hear about the mechanisms of the fencing and how dynamic it is and how it's really engineered to yeah, not punish animals, but keep them in the intended places and can really match with producers goals in a site-specific way, which again is really important in the diversity of rangelands that we're all dealing with. All right. We've covered a lot of ground today about the costs and benefits, different types of costs and benefits of adopting these precision systems and how your research and the project's research is really a type of action research that's developing this stuff actively and in partnership with producers, which is really exciting. And then as we wrap up the hour, one important question is can producers become involved in this research?

Do you foresee any opportunities for producers to co-produce or help develop this technology in the near future?

Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e: [00:41:04] Yeah. So the project has collaborative ranches across the west United States. For instance, we have the CDRRC Clayton Livestock Research Center, the Jornada, which are all situated within New Mexico, but also we have Dugout Ranch that is situated in Utah.

Corte Madera Ranch, California, and the Evergreen Ranch in South Dakota. And all these collaborative ranches were included with the grant proposal that was initially written. And we made sure that this NIFA grant is inclusive with real producers out there. That they can shape how we are going forward with this research in trying to implement precision livestock ranching. But in the project it does not limit us to those ranches. I'm sure our individuals within the group where we have extension agents and so forth are willing to advise individuals that are also planning to go through this route of deploying this precision livestock farming within their properties.

So I'm sure all the individuals within the grant will be willing to direct a producer out there in best practices or how to deploy this equipment. Either the LoRa Wan with Matthew's expertise as he as explained earlier on, the virtual fencing devices, and other environmental kind of sensors that you can put on a ranch out there.

I'm sure that the group is willing to work with ranches who are willing to implement this strategy as well. 

Sheri Spiegal: [00:42:48] Wonderful. Yeah, that's exciting. And Matt, what do you think maybe another way would be for producers who are interested to sign up for our newsletter and maybe tell us, and introduce themselves through our website? What do you think?

Matt McIntosh: [00:43:04] I think that's perfect. I was going to shamelessly plug the coordinated agricultural project aspect here too, in that, that's one of our primary objectives is of course to bring producers and stakeholders of all types on board. And so of course they can definitely visit our website, which I believe is: and there they can interact with the research that we've been producing and see our overall goals. And also give us feedback about thoughts and ways that we can enhance the, all these technologies to make it more useful for them. Certainly the extension team is working already I think with a bunch of producers to get their feedback and understand what their needs and wants and goals are for this type of technology as well as young stakeholders.

So there's an educational component to the project where we're working with several different education groups who are developing lesson plans and working with students and also getting their feedback about ways that we could potentially improve this. I think that's really one of the best parts of the whole project is this really in-depth collaborative exercise, where they're feedback between education and extension and producers and research.

And so we're trying to sort of co-exist in this holistic project to be able to advance things and make it better for everybody.

Sheri Spiegal: [00:44:27] Yes. I agree. It is quite exciting to hear from those kindergarteners through 12th graders and hear about their perceptions about Southwest beef and sustainability in the Southwest U.S in the future. And so I thank them and I thank you both for being such a vital part of this work and really, keep up the great work and we look forward to hearing more from you in the future and learning more from you.

And I want to thank our listeners for tuning in, and we look forward to hearing from you through our website, And with that, we will sign off from the Sustainable Southwest Beef Coordinated Agricultural project podcast. Okay. Thank you all. 

Shelemia Nyamuryekung'e: [00:45:10] Thank you, Sheri. Thank you all. 

Matt McIntosh: [00:45:13] Cool, thank you guys.

Emile Elias: [00:45:16] Thanks for listening to Come Rain or Shine, podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub 

Sarah LeRoy: [00:45:21] and the USGS Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. If you liked this podcast, don't forget to rate or review it and subscribe for more great episodes. A special thanks to our production crew Skye Aney and Reanna Burnett. If you want more information, have any questions for the speakers or would like to offer feedback, please reach out to us via our websites.