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Photo: Cow equipped with a GPS collar, used to track the location of the animal. Link to photo information
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Tracking Movement of Cattle With Satellites

By David Elstein
August 12, 2002

Global Positioning Systems (GPS)--technology used in automobiles to obtain directions and in golf carts to measure distance--are being used to track cattle. Previously, the only way to see where cattle roamed was to have people watch them, which can be expensive.

Researchers want to know why cattle travel where they do. Better understanding of grazing behavior will allow managers to disperse cattle more effectively, since they use only 30 to 50 percent of their pastures. Livestock distribution is a major issue for ranchers, and the GPS technology is really the first tool to allow researchers to better understand why cattle make the choices they do about where to graze.

Agricultural Research Service rangeland scientist Dave Ganskopp, at ARS' Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, Burns, Ore., has installed collars with special radio receivers on a dozen cattle. These receivers collect information from a constellation of 24 to 30 satellites that may be working at any one time. Using satellite coordinates, researchers can determine within a few meters where a cow was and at what time she was there. Not only do the GPS units track where these cattle roam, they also monitor head movements that indicate whether the animals are eating, sleeping or just walking.

Once he gets the information from the collars, Ganskopp puts the data in a computer and uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to understand and visualize the environment the cattle were in. With his results, he will develop computer software to determine what cattle will do in various situations and the effects of adding fences and water. Ganskopp, who has been working on this study for almost two years, hopes to eventually be able to predict where cattle will roam and forage.

More information on this research can be found in August's Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.