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Invisible fences could be the future of cattle ranching in Florida and climate change research

Close-up of cattle (some dark or light brown) wearing metal collars surrounded by greenery.
The cattle collars create invisible fences with just the click of a mouse, using surrounding cell towers.

Florida scientists are determining how cattle grazing impacts plants, green house gas emissions, and carbon stored in the soil, using collars and cell towers.

A Southwest Florida rancher is controlling cattle on his 5,000-acre property with an invisible fence as part of research exploring ways to keep livestock from trampling environmentally sensitive lands.

Jim Strickland, who has spent about 50 years ranching in Florida, became the first in the southeastern United States to use electric collars and cell towers to keep cattle on his property about six months ago.

Close-up of man in cowboy hat, jean collared shirt.
Jim Strickland
Jim Strickland

From his desk, he monitors 100 cattle on Blackbeard’s Ranch, one of his properties which lies in the Manatee/Sarasota/DeSoto County area bordering Myakka State Park. Through GPS tracking, he can see if animals stay away from the herd, which signals that they may be sick or hurt.

"We don't have to ride around on two or 3,000 acres and check cows... Everyone that has a collar we can check," he said.

Strickland split the roughly $65,000 cost of the equipment with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But he said overall this technology will help to alleviate some of the continuing costs of building fences with posts and barbed wire. Although, Florida does require by law some physical fencing for cattle ranches, like near roads and neighbors.

“Another thing is a hurricane. We had almost 28 miles of fence that were not wholly gone during Hurricane Ian. But if we would have had the technology, if we had gotten the ability to bring in some portable cell phone towers, I could have fenced in a lot of country with a click of a mouse rather than being out there inspecting 28 miles of fence with loaders and all of that,” Strickland said.

This practice is also helping to make grazing decisions, he said.

“Now we're going into our dry time, even though we have been in a drought for the last 12 months here in Florida, and particularly the Tampa Bay area. But our grazing techniques and our grazing plans are subject to mother nature,” Strickland said.

“Are we going to get a hurricane that's going to flood everything? Are we going to get a drought where we have to open the gates where cattle have an abundant supply of clean water by different water holes and different streams that go across? But in a real world, we can decide where we want to graze cattle and not have to install a fence.”

Strickland said he will rely on scientists at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to help make those decisions.

 Many cattle (light and dark brown) in a green pasture wearing metal collars.

Joao Vendramini, a professor at UF focusing on forage management, is monitoring the cattle through their GPS collars to determine how their grazing impacts plants, emissions, and carbon stored in the soil.

"What happens if you control and you place the cattle wherever you want to in this specific area, and what is the impact that they will have in the plant community and also on the others soil characteristics and greenhouse gas emissions?" he said.

Researchers are also going to find out if keeping cattle out of sensitive areas, like wetlands, improves water quality.

“Most of these range lands we have several wetlands, some places that water flows in rivers. And with this technology, we can also exclude those areas from grazing if desired,” Vendramini said.

“There is no evidence that completely excluding cattle from wetlands that will increase the water quality. Nonetheless, that gives you the opportunity to save if you need to accumulate water.”

Jim Strickland said this project will help to maximize profit, but also protect wildlife.

“Think of the ideas that we can come up with on grazing animals in different ecosystems at different times of the year,” he said.

“So, that's what I'm really excited about. The day-to-day is great, but looking 50 years into the future, 20 years into the future, I'm really excited about the opportunities we have with this.”

Two men in cowboy hats talking to each other with greenery surrounding them.
Joao Vendramini of UF speaking with rancher Jim Strickland.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.