Feb. 8, 2013 at 7:06 PM ET
Managing livestock with fences and gates is so medieval. The future, says one USDA scientist, is equipping cows with GPS units and coraling them via augmented reality. It may sound crazy, but it could be the best thing to happen to the industry in a century.
The millions of cattle who roam the world's pastures are generally enclosed in fences of wood or wire, a technique that has worked well for hundreds of years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dean Anderson thinks that it's time to bring the industry up to 21st century standards.
Grazing efficiently is tough because the landscape is unpredictable. Cows may find themselves clipping the weeds on their side of the fence, while lush green grass grows just a few feet away because of weather or erosion patterns. Sure, you can move the fence, but that's an expensive and time-consuming process. So why not remove the physical fence altogether, and replace it with a virtual one?
"It never made sense to me that we use static tools to manage dynamic resources," Anderson told Venue in a recent interview. He's working on a system somewhat like the electronic fences used to keep animals in the yard without a physical barrier — but, naturally, a bit more sophisticated.
It builds on the popular method of rotating stock through multiple smaller paddocks, which gives better control over how the animals and land interact with each other. If you could do that without having to worry about dozens of fences and gates, wouldn't you?
The Directional Virtual Fencing system works by equipping cows with GPS headsets (they look strange, but the cows apparently don't mind) that constantly report the animal's position to a central location. Soft boundaries are set by whoever's managing the herd, and can be moved by miles to new pastures or shifted just a few yards to nudge the herd towards fresh grass.
As the cows approach the edge, they get corrected — first with a gentle noise, then a loud one, then a light shock. Anderson tested the shock gear on himself to make sure it wasn't excessive, and he's sensitive to animal welfare. These cows may be destined for the dinner table, but until then, they're living creatures and must be treated with care.
It works like a charm with most animals, although some ("Like myself," jokes Anderson) are not amenable to the system. And it's useless without solid infrastructure (water and shelter), intelligence (where there's rain or dangerous terrain), and, critically, human backup. Anderson explains:
You need that flexibility, and you always need to ground-truth. The only way you can get optimum results, in my opinion, is to have someone who is trained in the basics of range science and animal science, to know when the numbers are good and when the numbers are lousy. Electronics simply provide numbers.
It's hard to say when we'll see the Directional Virtual Fencing system in action, although Anderson says that actual physical fence companies are bullish on the technology. It's expensive at the moment and a little outside the range, as it were, of traditional ranchers — but the benefits are hard to deny: Better-fed cattle, healthier land, less manual intervention with natural animal tendencies.
The rest of the long interview has much more information on the system and current issues surrounding livestock, and is well worth a read.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.