High Tech Herding
It’s Old West cattle herding, with a 21st century twist. A lightweight wireless headset called “Ear-ARound” has stereo earphones that funnel sounds directly into a cow’s ear to guide their movement. Powered by a small energy panel, the unit contains a Global Positioning System device, and a WiFi antenna to monitor a cow’s movement and location.
The project involves the US Department of Agriculture and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the government’s Jornada Experimental Range in southern New Mexico. Researchers hope the device will give ranchers and farmers the ability to herd cattle from afar, says Daniela Rus, an MIT professor and a lead researcher on the project. “It has the potential to give farmers a much finer control of pastures, improved management of where animals are and a better use of the land,” says Rus. In essence, a rancher could stay in his air-conditioned office and check on the location of his animals by logging onto a computer.
Another potential benefit would be eye-friendly vistas that have no fences. The device works by using sound to keep an animal within a “virtual paddock” through GPS technology. Dean Anderson, USDA researcher and animal scientist, says the goal of the current research is to improve animal distribution on the landscape. Land can be abused by overgrazing and animals overrunning sensitive areas.
“With virtual fencing, you have the ability, in real-time, to manage animals across the landscape to avoid that situation,” says Anderson. “If there are areas that are overused, you can move an animal off those areas more rapidly.”
Researchers and cow hands will no longer have to spend time building and repairing fences. Instead, they’ll devote more time to leading animals to areas for better nutrition while protecting natural resources.
“Virtual fencing could take all this labor included with removing physical, mundane barriers and focus more on management,” says Anderson. “It’s looking for the best management with the best skills that technology can provide.”
Rus says it’s important to first understand cow behavior to achieve the best results. Since cows tend to follow leaders, Anderson is working to identify herd leaders and outfit them with the device for the field test. Rus and Anderson are using sounds to gather and move the animals. Anderson uses his own voice and sings songs during training exercises to prompt a reaction. They also plan to test other sounds as possible cues, including naturally repulsive sounds for cows such as barking dogs and hissing snakes.
The researchers hope this technology will reveal a productive and positive management technique for humans and animals alike.
Source: Melanie Dabovich, Associated Press