Hardwick, News

Snug Valley Farm Pilots Virtual Fencing Technology

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HARDWICK – Fence posts and spools of wire are being swapped for cell phone apps and electric collars on several Vermont farms this summer as farmers pilot virtual fencing technology to manage herds of livestock.

Using technology called Nofence, farmers can create virtual fence lines using a cell phone app, which communicates with animals’ collars via mobile networks and GPS tracking. The collar plays a series of tones as an animal moves closer and closer to the fence line before delivering a “mild, but effective electric pulse,” according to the Nofence website. With time, livestock learn to recognize the audio warning and will turn around before reaching the boundary.

photo by Nofence
Cattle wear Nofence collars, which use GPS tracking and mobile networks to communicate with virtual fence lines. The technology allows farmers to track cattle and change boundaries in real-time from the Nofence app.

The Agritech Institute for Small Farms is running a program to test the technology in five cattle farms and four vegetation management projects across Vermont, according to a press release from the organization.

Since being created by the Strolling of the Heifers nonprofit in 2022, the Agritech Institute has helped small-scale farms access the technology that has historically “passed them by,” Dan Smith, the institute’s co-founder, said. 

The institute collected more than $300,000 in grant money from the Dairy Business Innovation Center, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and other organizations to fund the pilot program, Smith said, which means farmers can test the Nofence equipment for free during the 2024 growing season. 

The project is the first in the state to test the technology, according to Nofence’s Program Manager Meghan Filbert. It is also one of the first projects of its kind in the nation, Filbert said: While Nofence has operated in Europe since 2011, the company didn’t establish a United States office until 2022.

photo by Ben Nottermann
The cattle at Snug Valley Farm in East Hardwick graze within the Nofence boundary. Their collars, run by GPS technology, will ring, and eventually deliver an electric shock, if the cattle get too close to the virtual fence.

Participating farmers said they feel like they’re stepping into the future of livestock farming. 

“I personally am not like a big technology person, because I think we lose track of the essentials of our job if we have too much technology. But I could immediately see the value of this app. It could really change farming dramatically,” said Sam Dixon, farm manager at Shelburne Farms.

Dixon said it took his sheep only an hour to learn how their collars worked when he first set up the virtual fence in mid-May. Since then, he said he’s been able to save time by not having to constantly move and repair fences and save money on the labor and material costs needed to do so. 

Ben Nottermann, co-owner of Snug Valley Farm in East Hardwick, tested the technology last year and is rejoining the Agritech Institute this summer to participate in the full pilot program. He agreed with Dixon, saying he saves at least 45 minutes a day by moving fence lines on the Nofence app instead of physically changing the posts along his cattle’s path. When that time is added up over about 200 days of the grazing season, he said, the virtual fence “pay(s) for itself” in labor cost savings. 

Nottermann said the technology is helpful in emergency situations, too. When historic rainfall struck the state last July, he said he was separated from his herd for five days due to flooding. He said the Nofence app was a “lifesaver” because he could move the fence perimeter away from flooded areas and track each cow to make sure they were safe, all while keeping himself out of harm’s way. 

The four vegetation sites involved in the program will test how the fence technology can be applied in non-agricultural settings. Sheep and goats will be virtually fenced into areas such as solar arrays and ski trails to trim grasses and plants, according to the press release.

While program participants observe the on-site effects of Nofence, Smith said he’ll be looking out for the wide-scale impact of the technology on the environment. Because farmers can now move their livestock to new grazing areas with ease, he said, pasture quality should improve.

Rotating livestock through different grazing areas gives pastures time to regrow and allows them to remain a sustainable source of nutrients, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Pastures maintained in this way also sequester more carbon and have stable root and soil structures, which all contribute to protecting the land for future generations of farmers, the USDA said on its website.

Overgrazing in one area, on the other hand, can lead to soil erosion that causes runoff and decreases water and soil quality. This can become especially dangerous during heavy summer rains, which have become more prevalent in the Northeastern United States, according to the USDA.

With pasture control now available at the touch of a finger, Smith said farmers in the pilot program can work toward the sustainability goals that the Agritech Institute strives for.

“Our mission is to enhance small farms’ capability to promote environmental health and well-being,” he said. “That’s the future, isn’t it?”

But some local farmers are worried that the benefits of the technology won’t outweigh the cost. Because, after the pilot program ends, the Nofence equipment will no longer be provided for free. 

“There’s no question that the technology works and the animals respond to it,” Dixon of Shelburne Farms said. “The big unanswered question is, ‘What is the whole cost-benefit of the expense of the technology?’”

Dixon said he specifically worries about the longevity of the technology: he’s already had to change out a few of the collars’ batteries after using them for less than a month, and the Nofence equipment “isn’t cheap.” 

In the U.S., Filbert said, Nofence’s cow collars are $329 each, small collars for goats and sheep are $229 each, and subscription fees to operate the collars can range from $3 to $4.50 per collar per month, depending on the size of the herd.

Other farmers cited concerns in addition to the high cost, including the steep learning curve required to master the app, the lack of strong mobile networks necessary to run the app in more rural parts of the state, and the likelihood of predator attacks without physical fences to keep them off farmland. 

Melanie Harrison, co-owner of Harrison’s Home Grown Farm in Addison, said she sees Nofence as a way to keep her farm financially and environmentally sustainable, even though she shares other farmers’ hesitations.

“I think, as the technology becomes cheaper, (Nofence) will become more cost effective. Because, at the same time, fence materials and labor are only becoming more and more expensive,” Harrison said. “And so it’s good to try and be kind of on the forefront of that technology and be able to adapt early on.”

Emma Malinak, VTDigger

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