Vast and sparsely populated, the rangeland in the western US is managed on horseback, on ATVs, and with thousands of miles of barbed wire fencing. Fencing is both a vital and imperfect technology. In the arid regions that stretch from Texas to Idaho, grass that is thick and green one week might be dust and tumbleweeds the next. Patches of poisonous plants come and go. Endangered birds might nest along a lush river for only a few weeks out of the year.

Put into widespread use in the late 1870s, the barbed wire fence destroyed one quintessentially American “technology” – that of the cowboy. It may now be time for a new technology to usurp the reign of barbed wire. Using GPS and a "bovine interface", Dean M. Anderson, a scientist at the US Department of Agriculture, is hoping to transform the way we manage cattle, and by extension, the entire ecology of the American West.

Anderson's Ear-a-Round device can be thought of as a pair of extremely unpleasant headphones. A device affixed to the cow's head emits a whisper-soft tone in safe zones. As the animal moves towards the GPS-determined "virtual fence", the tone slowly ramps up into a noise as painfully loud as a 747 taking off. Particularly stubborn cattle will receive a zap from a pair of electrodes.Add New

By alternating which side of the head the auditory cues come from, the animal can be precisely maneuvered away from boundaries, and towards water, better grazing or a corral. Combined with up-to-the-minute satellite terrain maps, the ear-a-round would permit the most efficient – and, one hopes, most sustainable – control of rangeland.


The technology would not be a replacement for all fencing. Panicked or extremely determined animals will ignore an irritating electric goad. That said, Anderson predicts that "somewhere in this century, at least... I think we will actually be stimulating internally at the neuronal level. At that point, virtual fencing may approach one hundred percent effective control." Conspiracy theorists take note: GPS mind control is coming.

The Ear-a-Round might have far more exotic applications than livestock management. In an era of increasing animal-wildlife conflict, it could help to keep lions out of Nairobi suburbs, or prevent elephants from destroying farmer's fields in rural India. Eliminating physical fences would also remove one of the many manmade obstacles along wildlife migratory routes.

And, of course, controlling cows by remote control should be more fun than playing Farmville.

Read the full article over at The Atlantic. Thanks to Frederike Kaltheuner for the tip.

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