New Zealand-based agtech company Vence is ramping up the roll-out of its virtual fencing system, armed with a $12 million cash injection from its latest funding round. The company utilizes hi-tech ear tags, collars, and other technology to control the movement of grazing livestock, while also keeping tabs on the well-being of the animals. And it’s all done via an app on the user’s smartphone.
Frank Wooten, co-founder and CEO of Vence says over 5,000 livestock farmers across the globe have shown interest in using the system for everything “from reindeer in Alaska to elephants in Sri Lanka.” Currently, the company is focusing on cattle and will begin delivering the first commercial version of its product to farms across the U.S. and Australia this year.
Wooten, a former investment banker with no experience in agriculture. The idea for Vence came from his farmer friend Jasper Holdsworth, who was searching for a cheaper alternative to the hundreds of thousands of dollars his operation spent on fencing every year. The challenge sent Wooten on a worldwide tour, interviewing farmers that all expressed their intense dislike of fencing. Common complaints included cost, labor to build them, and time spent on maintenance. “It was a really well-defined pain point.”
After studying research on Pavlovian training performed by MIT and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he concluded that the technology to deploy such a system existed, it just needed to be developed and scaled. One of those experts was Dr. Dean Anderson, retired USDA Animal Scientist and virtual fencing pioneer. With the help of Dr. Daniela Rus, the head of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT, Anderson developed a prototype system employing GPS, PDA, wireless networking, and a sound amplifier some 30 years ago. However, at a cost of $300,000 per unit, the system was shelved.
Using the same concepts, the system developed by Vence uses wearable collars or tags containing GPS and a magnetometer that detects where an animal is located. Users digitally create the borders of the pasture they would like to create. If the animal strolls somewhere it shouldn’t, the wearable emits a buzzing noise. If the animal keeps going into the restricted area, it gets a light electric shocked. Wooten explains that when it comes time to move the herd, the buzzing will start to get the animals moving, and then stops when they walk in the right direction.
The company claims the system can reduce labor costs by over 25% with producers able to rotate cattle through pastures or bring them in for milking with just the swipe on the app. No labor, ATVs, or dogs needed. Vence also claims up to 30% cost savings when rotationally or strip grazing animals. Additionally, sensors in the wearables collect information about the well being of the animals, which can be monitored via the app.
Vence also has a larger goal of helping cattle producers sequester carbon through carefully managed grazing. “The proper form of cattle management does some wonderful things for the planet in terms of carbon sequestration and becomes a net neutral to the environment instead of a net negative,” Wooten says. The result for rotationally grazing cattle is similar to the effects of rotating crops. Moving cattle throughout a property at a specific pace and timing increases grass growth which enhances the soil and root structure of those grasses and shrubs. That in turn allows the soil to sequester carbon while not over-polluting one area with waste from the animals. “For regenerative agriculture to work at scale, it needs to generate profits for farmers/ranchers as well as enhance their quality of life,” explains Wooten. “We built a platform which does both.”
Vence’s latest capital raise included existing backers Rabo Food and Agri Innovation Fund, which first invested in the company in 2018. Over time, Vence sees opportunity in expanding the utility of wearable sensors, “eventually looking at fertility, health, and welfare on each animal,” according to Wooten. Learn more at the Vence website HERE.