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How satellite-guided cows might save the Kansas prairie and make ranchers more money

A Red Angus cow from the Mushrush herd wears a GPS collar.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
A Red Angus cow from the Mushrush herd wears a GPS collar.

Prairie wildlife needs a patchy landscape, in which different areas bear the marks of varying degrees of grazing. Scientists have a plan to achieve that.

STRONG CITY, Kansas — Third-generation rancher Daniel Mushrush has 30-plus miles of barbed wire fence to tend to.

Calves wriggle beneath it. The wires get loose. Wild animals take a toll. And when streams surge after storms, rushing water often snaps sections in two.

For Mushrush and his family, the fence-mending on their Flint Hills ranch never ends. It’s inescapable.

“Fencing is right up there with death and taxes,” the third-generation cattle rancher said.

But this year, his cattle sport new GPS collars intended to make traditional fences not quite obsolete, but less important. About the size of an iPhone and twice as thick, the collars offer a high-tech take on the kind of familiar invisible fences that homeowners install for dogs.

Mushrush joined a Nature Conservancy project that brings together ranchers, scientists and conservation experts in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.

Their work is part of a flurry of recent studies into the tech world’s fledgling virtual fence industry.

Mushrush’s Red Angus cattle will help researchers learn whether the devices can save ranchers money and simultaneously help ailing bird populations, reduce water pollution and increase the resilience and diversity of grasslands.

Biologists from Kansas State University will help study the effects of a project that could prove a model bridge between conservationists and Flint Hills ranchers.

The agriculture and conservation fields often stand at odds, but they also share some common ground in their appreciation of the nation’s last significant stretches of unplowed tallgrass prairie.

“If I’m going to own Flint Hills grass, there’s a moral obligation to treat it like it’s sacred,” Mushrush said. “Because it is. There’s not very much left.”

Still, paying his bills comes first. Protecting wildlife, such as the disappearing greater prairie chicken, comes second.

“Is it as important as me making my mortgage payment? Obviously not,” he said. “Because (prairie chickens) can’t take this ranch, like the bank still could.”

 Kansas State University doctoral candidate Katy Silber, left, and undergraduate biology student Emily Burnett gather data on vegetation and cattle impacts along a stream on the Mushrush ranch.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
Kansas State University doctoral candidate Katy Silber, left, and undergraduate biology student Emily Burnett gather data on vegetation and cattle impacts along a stream on the Mushrush ranch.

How the collars work

The Mushrush ranch is home to between 800 and a couple thousand cattle, depending on the time of year. The family owns or leases about 15,000 acres.

Seen on a map, the ranch is shaped something like Africa. Fencing, meanwhile, cuts across it in straight lines.

“That’s where it was drawn out 100 years ago,” Mushrush said. “That’s where the fence is yet today.”

Those rigid lines are blind to the curvy contours that shape this land — flat-topped hills, rocky ledges and snake-like, meandering streams.

Yet when it comes to grazing, the contours matter. They effectively funnel cattle toward some areas and away from others.

And when the herd consistently opts, say, to lounge along a creek, the damage can add up. The cattle can chomp and stomp the same areas too much, tearing up the banks and filling the stream with nitrogen from their manure.

Mushrush decided to try the GPS collars. His barbed wire fences just aren’t where he needs them, making it hard to give vegetation the right balance of grazing and rest that produces more robust grasses.

When grasses suffer, it limits how many animals a ranch can support.

Mushrush can’t solve the problem by installing ever more physical fences, which can cost thousands of dollars per mile. Even with temporary fences, it’s tough. This landscape — including when any given swath of it would benefit from more or less grazing — is simply too nuanced.

Virtual fence aims to let ranchers block off any zone on their property by pulling up a map on an electronic tablet and using software to set the lines.

Adding a buffer zone along a winding creek — practically impossible, and prohibitively expensive with normal fences — becomes easy. So do other changes, such as redrawing paddocks or moving cattle to let grazed grasses grow.

The GPS collars don’t require ranchers to bury wires in the ground the way invisible fences for dogs frequently do.

If cattle walk toward the invisible line, the collars make noises. If they keep walking, those noises get louder. If they cross the line, the collars deliver a shock.

Most of the cattle take the hint. A few shrug off the discomfort and cross the barrier to munch on the proverbial greener grass.

But if most of the cattle stick to the rules, that could be enough to benefit ranchers, flora and fauna.

Where interests overlap

The Nature Conservancy has an interest in ranchers succeeding financially.

Flint Hills ranchers run their cattle on what the environmental group describes as one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, with more than 500 plant species.

Once one of North America’s dominant landscapes, settlers and their descendents plowed almost the entire continent’s tallgrass to plant crops.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

“The Flint Hills is really the only place where we have significant contiguous acres that are still in native tallgrass prairie,” said Tony Capizzo, who heads the Nature Conservancy’s work to preserve it.

Flint Hills ranches that thrive are likely to remain ranches — and unplowed prairie — instead of facing development.

“Ranching is very inherently compatible with prairie conservation,” he said. “Ranching needs to stay profitable.”

The Nature Conservancy owns the 10,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve next to Mushrush’s property. Bison roam there, as do some of Mushrush’s cattle, through a lease.

Prairie needs grazing — in the right amounts — to thrive. It prevents some plant species from taking over, so that the land continues to host its signature diverse collection of grasses and wildflowers.

The wildlife that call the prairie home, meanwhile, benefit from a patchy landscape, in which different areas bear the marks of varying degrees of grazing and burning. The Nature Conservancy thinks GPS could help achieve that.

Mushrush said he and the Nature Conservancy may rank their priorities differently, but their goals still overlap.

His top priority is grass that’s as healthy and robust as possible, so that he can graze more livestock and keep the ranch profitable for decades to come. He hopes the GPS collars will help him keep cattle in the right places at the right times to achieve that.

And if researchers can show him how to shore up prairie biodiversity at the same time, he said, “it’s certainly worth trying.”

Protecting birds and water

“That is one of the reasons we’re so excited” to study virtual fencing, said Alice Boyle, a biology professor at K-State who studies birds. “It’s the first solution that I know about that is positive … from the ranching perspective and from the grassland conservation perspective.”

The cattle only recently received collars. This year, the devices will track where the animals spend their time, but won’t restrict their movements.

K-State biologists will use these months to gauge the current situation before the virtual fences go live. Then they’ll see in the coming years how the prairie responds to a nimbler way of managing livestock.

They’ll look for changes in nitrogen pollution and erosion when cattle can no longer loiter consistently along their favorite streams.

They’ll look for plant diversity and vigor in areas that get needed rest.

They’ll look for increases in grassland birds.

Half of North America’s grassland birds have disappeared since 1970.

For Kansas, that means icons of the open plains, such as the brightly colored, sweet-singing meadowlarks, pipe up each spring in smaller numbers.

“In many ways, the species that we’re worried about … define our natural landscape,” Boyle said. “And we live in the last big stronghold of where those populations are still common.”

Once widespread, prairie chickens known for their eerie whooping sounds and dances on breeding grounds, called leks, now retain shrinking toeholds in scattered parts of the central U.S.

The virtual fencing project could help by effectively cording off areas for rest from prescribed burning and grazing, long enough to let a mat of dead grass called thatch accrue at ground level, interwoven among the live grass.

Many grassland birds need thatch to survive.

 Tony Capizzo shows a handful of thatch from the ground at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
Tony Capizzo shows a handful of thatch from the ground at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

“We can create patches of that suitable nesting habitat in areas close to the prairie chicken leks,” said. “We know that the females tend to nest not too far from those leks.”

Like physical fences, virtual fences are expensive, too. The question is whether the benefits — both in terms of healthier grass and less time and money spent mending barbed wire or moving temporary fences — can pay off long-term for ranchers.

A team of business experts from Colorado State University will study Mushrush’s experience to help figure it out. Mushrush is optimistic.

“The math should work,” he said. “It’s a lot of money up front, but ultimately I think it will make our lives a little easier and it will help.”

“Water, wildlife (and) rancher profitability,” he said, “all three of those are really important to sustainability.”

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Celia comes to the Kansas News Service after five years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. She brings in-depth experience covering schools and education policy in Kansas as well as news at the Statehouse. In the last year she has been diving into data reporting. At the Kansas News Service she will also be producing more radio, a medium she’s been yearning to return to since graduating from Columbia University with a master’s in journalism.
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