Rotational grazing is fast emerging as a potential tool that will allow cattle farming to contribute towards climate change mitigation. Its main premise is to limit the cows’ access to a given area of pasture, shifting them to a new section before they over-graze it. Once the cattle have been moved on, the pasture is given time to rest and regrow, providing for deeper roots, healthier soils, and better water retention.
How do cattle producers achieve this? Typically, by deploying miles upon miles of electric fences. This can often result in a hefty materials receipt for ranchers, while the labor required to continually build and remove temporary electric fencing also comes at a cost.
US startup Vence wants to make things easier for cowherds and their cattle by providing an equally effective virtual version.
“We’ve got over 5,000 people who are sending us inbounds on everything from reindeer in Alaska to elephants in Sri Lanka,” co-founder and CEO Frank Wooten tells AFN.
“We are focusing on cattle right now, but we think this has some broader application in other spaces.”
The San Diego-based company today announced it has raised $12 million in a Series A round led by California’s Tyche Partners. The round included participation from existing investors including Grantham Environmental Trust subsidiary Neglected Climate Opportunities, and Eniac Ventures as well as new investor Trailhead Capital.
Another existing investor joining this round was Rabobank‘s Rabo Food & Ag Innovation Fund, which had first been introduced to the Vence team when it graduated from startup acceleration platform FoodBytes! in 2017.
“There’s so much focus on meat alternatives that when we met with folks who had a real holistic view of regenerative agriculture and cattle being part of the solution, what we do clicked right away,” Wooten says of Vence’s investor stable.
The startup uses GPS-enabled wearable collars to keep cattle where they’re supposed to be. Users digitally create the borders of the pasture they would like to create. If a cow is about to stray out of bounds, their collar first emits a warning noise; if that doesn’t get the point across, it follows up with a light electrical shock – just like a physical electric fence.
To further reduce the labor load, the collar can be attached in less than 30 seconds, according to Wooten. Farmers can get their hands on the devices for roughly $35 per animal, per year, with the price varying depending on the number of head in the herd.
Wooten says the “worst case” battery life for each collar is six to nine months.
“In really large pastures, like what we find in Montana and northern Australia, it is a two-year battery life.”
Over time, Vence sees opportunity in expanding the utility of the collars, “eventually looking at fertility, health, and welfare on each animal,” he adds.
Capturing cattle producers’ interest
Vence’s overarching goal is to help cattle producers sequester carbon through carefully managed grazing. The US’s grasslands are the world’s second-largest carbon sink behind the ocean, according to the startup, and rotational grazing has been shown to accelerate the pace at which those lands store the element.
But, as Wooten notes, farmers’ quality of life should also be considered. The requirements of rotational grazing can tie farmers to their herds for long periods. But with Vence’s system, an entire grazing plan can be uploaded in one fell swoop, freeing up their time.
When introduced to the concept, most cattle producers are excited, offering a deluge of questions about how the system works and whether it can cut costs, Wooten claims.
Other startups trying to provide farmers with virtual fencing solutions include Australia’s Agersens, which secured $15 million funding from New Zealand farm equipment maker Gallagher in 2019. Kiwi startup Halter is also working on dairy cow herding tech, while Norway’s Nofence is doing the same for goats.
Challenges are plentiful when it comes to delivering a virtual fencing product that is reliable, affordable, and integrable with existing operations. Vence’s collars face extreme conditions – seeing as they are attached to 1,500-pound animals in environments with highly variable weather.
At the same time, cattle producers are already operating on thin margins and are often reluctant to break the bank for emerging technologies.
Thanks to the new dose of capital, however, the 5,000 farmers who Wooten reports as expressing interest in Vence won’t have to wait long to get their hands on the tech.
“We are going to build out the sales and operations muscle to get out on all these farms. We will also spend 35% of the funding on evolving the technology and building the next iteration,” he says.