Parshall’s Fitch Ranch awarded for implementation of virtual fencing system

Fitch Ranch owners Cam and Debbie Fitch won an ingenuity award for innovating a "virtual fence" on their property.
Fitch Ranch/Courtesy Photo

The Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland announced that a Grand County partner has been awarded with annual USDA Forest Service Rangeland Management honors. Fitch Ranch in Parshall has achieved the Rangeland Ingenuity Award, for Forest Service employees and/or partners who have taken proactive efforts to adapt to changing conditions and develop creative solutions.

Debbie and Cameron Fitch own the ranch. They received the award for their implementation of an innovative virtual fencing system.

Along with the Fitches, two Forest Service employees were honored: Marie Stiles, rangeland management specialist on the Parks Ranger District of Routt National Forest, and Dwayne Rice, Rocky Mountain Region Range Program manager.

“It’s great to see our local partners recognized for their contributions to sustainable landscapes,” said Geri Proctor, Rangeland Program manager for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland. “These awards showcase the work being done on the ground through partnerships and innovative ideas to meet the objectives of sound land management. It’s also important to note how the ranchers we work with are willing to embrace new technology to help achieve those same objectives.”

The Fitch Ranch received their award in June at the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Annual Summer Meeting in Colorado Springs. The text from the award, presented to Debbie and Cameron Fitch, Marie Stiles and Dwayne Rice is presented below:  

“The Fitch Ranch was directly affected by the 2020 East Troublesome fire, which in total burned 197,000 acres of Forest Service, BLM and private land. The ranch’s permitted Forest Service Corral Creek allotment for summer grazing was partially burned. Fences were destroyed. The Fitch Ranch didn’t know if the unburned portion of their allotment could be grazed without significant additional cost in temporary fence and labor to prevent cattle from entering the burn scar. The conventional option was to completely rest the entire 12,538-acre Corral Creek allotment. 

“A reduction in their herd allowed for better usage of the unburned allotment portion, but the question persisted of how to control the management of the cattle without the additional cost and trouble of an electric fence or riders. Thinking outside the box, Debbie and Cameron Fitch approached the Forest Service about a Virtual Livestock Containment System in lieu of a physical barrier.

“Local Rangeland Management Specialist Marie Stiles saw the potential of the new virtual fencing system and the positive implications of using it to partition pastures without the need for wire or posts. She agreed to allow the Fitch Ranch to demonstrate its effectiveness on the ungrazed portion of the allotment. Stiles worked with the Fitches to develop the maps, determine transmission tower locations and implement a monitoring plan to measure the effectiveness of the new livestock management system.

“The Fitch Ranch privately purchased two transmission towers and re-engineered them into nomadic rather than stationary towers. Fewer but more mobile towers are cheaper than single-use stationary towers. The ranch also contracted for the lease of the collars as well as the software application and support through the Vence company. The cows were collared in March and introduced to a training regime at the ranch headquarters. With training and time, the herd became familiar with the cues and subsequent consequences of the Virtual Fence.

“When the cows were turned out on the Forest Service allotment, the animals’ locations were closely monitored, and the virtual fence system performed as advertised. An additional test occurred a few weeks following turnout, when the cows were virtually herded off the allotment following a tangible threat from a new wildfire. According to Debbie Fitch, ‘Within an hour of getting the wildfire notification from Marie, we were able to move our 120 head of cows and their calves off of our Forest Service allotment and onto our adjacent home ranch without getting on horseback, ATV or buggy.’

“Thanks to the efforts of Debbie and Cameron Fitch and Marie Stiles and support from Dwayne Rice, the virtual fence system demonstration was a huge success. The system allowed the Fitch Ranch to implement a grazing plan that was economical for the ranch and ecologically responsible for natural resources. The implications of their efforts are changing the way the Forest Service is using livestock grazing as a tool to manipulate rangelands.”

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