Volunteer fence maintenance a win-win for landowners, big game
By Martin Townsend, RSA Lands Coordinator
This summer, an effort between conservation organizations and Blaine County ranchers at the Louie Petrie Ranch north of Turner, Montana offered two days of hands-on learning, practical ranch work, and collaboration to benefit ranching and pronghorn migration in the region.
The Obrecht family hosted more than 40 volunteers June 17 and 18 at their ranch to share how fencing and simple changes of wire heights can make huge impacts for migrating pronghorn. The Woody Island Coulee area is a key migration linkage for pronghorn. Hundreds of animals migrate through the area each year as they follow the narrow strip of grassland from summer to winter ranges at each end.
Along the way, these animals can encounter fences that make travel difficult. This added stress can have negative impacts to their health and survivability, especially in harsh weather. Raising bottom wires on fences to 16-18 inches can greatly reduce these hindrances. This field day accomplished just that task for the benefit of migrating pronghorn as well as completed some needed fencing maintenance on the ranch.
The workshop started with presentations related to pronghorn migration and programs from Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and Pheasants Forever biologists. Tyrel Obrecht shared an overview of the ranch and gave a great explanation as to why they prioritize wildlife habit alongside their cattle grazing. The family has found that by managing their grazing in a way that benefits wildlife, their business benefits, too.
The group toured the ranch to see cropland that has been seeded to grassland and their use of temporary fence to help with plant recovery and carbon sequestration. By grazing small areas for short periods of time, and therefore allowing greater rest and recovery time after grazing, Obrecht said he has noted increased plant vigor and resiliency without sacrificing grazing capacity. This increase in plant response also helps provide high value food sources for wildlife. These are food sources pronghorn need while migrating through the area.
Next, volunteers either removed a bottom wire, clipped the next wire up in places, or re-hung at a height easier for pronghorn to get under. Most of the volunteers were conservation agency or organization employees with Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), Ducks Unlimited, World Wildlife Fund, Pheasants Forever, Ameri-corps and more. Surrounding ranchers also came and learned about pronghorn migration and provided support to the fencing crews.
While the volunteers worked on wires, ranching neighbors in UTV’s helped supply tools, moved crews and provided water as the afternoon got warm. The event brought together a diverse network of experiences and expertise: college-aged interns worked alongside state and regional agency directors; ranchers worked alongside employees of wildlife non-profits. Everyone got to meet someone new and directly contribute to improving habitat for wildlife and the ranch’s grazing infrastructure. Many of the participants camped on the ranch to get an early start on the fencing the second day. This provided an opportunity to get to know each other, see more of the ranch and recreate in a place some had never experienced. Some of the intern participants were from as far away as Massachusetts and some had never seen pronghorn before. The event was a great introduction to ranching and wildlife co-existing in this prairie landscape.
The Obrecht family and workshop organizers set a goal to modify nine miles of fence for the event. By lunch on the second day, the group had modified more than 11 miles of fence. It was a great opportunity for relationship building, community engagement, wildlife habitat improvements, and ranching exposure for people that might not otherwise see the intersection of ranching and conservation on the ground.
Thank you to all who put this event on, including Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Blaine County Conservation District, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and First Bank of Montana.
Thank you to the Obrecht family and the Louie Petrie Ranch for hosting this great event.
NextGen Fencing: The Future of Pasture Management
Montana rancher shares lessons learned with virtual cow collar technology in free May 18 webinar.
By Laura Nelson,
Ranchers Stewardship Alliance
He never thought he’d see it in his lifetime.
“This started with a conversation with a friend in the wildlife community,” Montana rancher Leo Barthelmess said. They discussed the challenges old, barbed—wire fencing posed to wildlife migration, and the cost and labor involved for a rancher to maintain and build new fencing. The expenses for both continued to mount.
“She said, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to have fences?’ I said, ‘Yes, but we won’t see it in you or I’s lifetime,’” Barthelmess recalled.
Just a couple years later, a conversation with a fellow Ranching For Profit graduate piqued his interest and connected him to company working to implement virtual fencing collars for livestock. He’s now in his second full year testing the technology on his family’s south Phillips County ranch.
Barthelmess and Vence, Inc., engineer Todd Parker will present “Ranching for a Resilient Future: Virtual Fencing for Land, Livestock and Landscape Health” in a free webinar at 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 18. Registration for the webinar is at www.ranchstewards.org. This is the final session in the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance’s Rural Resilience webinar series.
The Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, with support from the Montana Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI) also released a short film called “NextGen Fencing” on the topic this week.
The virtual fencing collars use satellite positioning technology to contain livestock without the need for a physical barrier. The distribution of the collared livestock can be carefully and precisely controlled through Vence’s software interface, where grazing cells can be quickly moved or modified according to conditions and vegetation growth.
“We are more prepared to weather adverse situations because we have the tools and the opportunities and the options to change course rather quickly,” Barthelmess said in the video.
The Barthelmess family piloted the use of the virtual cow collars on 400 mature cows in October 2019. After a full year utilizing the technology in 2020, they continue to adjust their grazing strategy and learn alongside their cattle.
“A lot of what good ranching and stockmanship is, is taking good care of the land, and we’re bringing another tool to the table to help ranchers do that,” Parker said.
Barthelmess said he noted a very distinct change in animal behavior over the course of the past two grazing seasons with the collars in place.
“They have historic memory of where they graze and how they graze,” Barthelmess said. “We’ve made them graze places they’ve never grazed before.”
The ability to adaptably rest favored areas and force cattle to graze historically under-utilized pasture with the collars helps stockpile forages to move the ranch closer to its ultimate goal of year-round grazing. While Barthelmess says he recognizes a yard full of hay is a necessary insurance policy for a North-Central Montana winter, “Our long-term goal is to graze cattle out on improved forage 11-12 months a year. The cost of equipment is just too high to keep haying – we have to change our business model if we want to sustain the ranch.”
Barthelmess can adjust his grazing barriers on his home computer or iPad. The barriers upload to Vence servers in California and the new fence lines are live within 12 hours.
“Virtual fencing is going to be a game-changer in terms of cost and labor,” Parker said. “You’re able to do more fencing, and more flexible fencing. Stock density can go up, ranching efficiency can go up and all of this is going to improve the bottom line.”
While the virtual collars mean less time spent building or moving temporary electric fence, or repairing and building perimeter fence, Barthelmess says it doesn’t mean less time in the field – just different time. He now spends more time observing the cattle, noting the conditions of the grass and soil, strategizing how to improve the next pasture design and enjoying the land and lifestyle that he loves.
“We want quality of life for ourselves and our livestock, we want a wonderful community to live in, we want these soils and water systems to work properly,” Barthelmess said. “We’re just one piece of this big, complex web of life, and we’re just trying to manage the pieces we can manage.”
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About Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, Inc.: In 2003, 30 ranching families in northern Montana came together to resolve common problems they faced. Now known as the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, this rancher-led non-profit organization continues to work to strengthen our rural communities, economy and ranching culture. RSA exists to help multi-generational and beginning ranchers build the collaborative, trusting relationships and community-based solutions we need to create healthy, working landscapes and vibrant rural communities. Ranching, Conservation, Communities – a Winning Team!
The NextGen Fencing film, produced by AgriStudios, is available at https://youtu.be/0NSWoWCROus. Please contact Laura Nelson at [email protected] for to inquire about sharing an original version of the film with your audience.
Bring landowner voices to Dec. 1 Private Lands/Public Wildlife meeting
In 2018, Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued Secretarial Order 3362 to improve habitat quality and big game winter range and migration corridors for antelope, elk and mule deer. The order provides funding for research and restoration projects to improve habitat within important migration corridors across the West. In response, Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks more recently identified five priority areas in our state with the most relevance to big game winter range and migration.
From my family ranch’s view in the heart of ‘Priority Area D: from the Canadian border to the Musselshell Plains’ in south Phillips County, this is no surprise. We’ve long been aware of these big game movements, although we may not have been able to articulate our working knowledge with the precision of the research that has more recently tracked and measured the extent of this land’s importance to big game movements. Still, we watch wildlife move through our pastures and fields with the same seasonal ebbs and flows that dictate our ranch’s calendar and daily work. We see when and where antelope pace alongside a fence line they fail to navigate, we recognize the impact a wildlife herd can have on our livestock grazing plans, and we mend the fences where their movements burst through.
On Dec. 1, the Governor-appointed Private Lands Public Wildlife Council will host a panel discussion to hear from landowners across Montana concerning how the state may better support working lands that support wildlife movements and migrations. The Council ultimately offers recommendations to the Governor and to the state legislature on issues concerning private lands and public wildlife. As the stewards of our working lands, ranchers can and must offer valuable working knowledge to this conversation. It’s important that we offer our insights and ideas early in the process and remain engaged in the conversation.
The Ranchers Stewardship Alliance hosted a local discussion in October with our Fish, Wildlife and Parks representatives to learn more about their research and understanding of big game migrations and to share our working knowledge of the land and wildlife they’re studying. The local ranching leaders who serve on our Ranchers Stewardship Alliance Board of Directors appreciate that FWP has made concerted and conscientious efforts to seek out local landowner perspectives in these wildlife migration issues.
The Private Lands Public Wildlife Council’s Dec. 1 virtual meeting will continue that conversation by asking: How does the state of Montana better support the working lands that support wildlife movement and migration? What is working? What do landowners need more help with, and what recommendations would landowners give? Information on the meeting, including call-in information, can be found at http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting/hunterAccess/plpw/.
The technical knowledge and research provided by FWP, other agencies and wildlife experts helps me make decisions that can benefit my ranch, the public’s wildlife and my rural community. In turn, our ranching experiences and observational wisdom can help agencies make plans that are realistic, agile and meaningful. This kind of collaboration doesn’t happen by accident. It takes resources and relationships and constant communication. The door is open on Dec. 1, and I’m urging fellow ranchers and private landowners to tune in to the live stream, offer their input and be a part of the conversation.
– Leo Barthelmess, President, Ranchers Stewardship Alliance
Barthelmess Ranch, Malta, MT.
Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is a rancher-led, conservation-focused non-profit in north-central Montana. We help multigenerational and beginning ranchers build the collaborative, trusting relationships and community-based solutions they need to create healthy working landscapes and vibrant rural communities. We believe that ranching, conservation, and communities build the ultimate winning team.