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

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.


By Celia Llopis-Jepsen, NPR KCUR Kansas City

June 21, 2022


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.”


How the collars work ...


Where interests overlap ...


Protecting birds and water ...


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