The Land of the Free: How Virtual Fences Will Transform Rural America

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A relatively straightforward technological innovation -- GPS-equipped free-range cows that can be nudged back within virtual bounds by ear-mounted stimulus-delivery devices -- could profoundly reshape our relationships with domesticated animals, the landscape, and each other.

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When European farmers arrived in North America, they claimed it with fences. Fences were the physical manifestation of a belief in private ownership and the proper use of land -- enclosed, utilized, defended -- that continues to shape the American way of life, its economic aspirations, and even its form of government.

Today, fences are the framework through the national landscape is seen, understood, and managed, forming a vast, distributed, and often unquestioned network of wire that somehow defines the "land of the free" while also restricting movement within it.

In the 1870s, the U.S. faced a fence crisis. As settlers ventured away from the coast and into the vast grasslands of the Great Plains, limited supplies of cheap wood meant that split-rail fencing cost more than the land it enclosed. The timely invention of barbed wire in 1874 allowed homesteaders to settle the prairie, transforming its grassland ecology as dramatically as the industrial quantities of corn and cattle being produced and harvested within its newly enclosed pastures redefined the American diet.

In Las Cruces, New Mexico, Venue met with Dean M. Anderson, a USDA scientist whose research into virtual fencing promises equally radical transformation -- this time by removing the mile upon mile of barbed wire stretched across the landscape. As seems to be the case in fencing, a relatively straightforward technological innovation -- GPS-equipped free-range cows that can be nudged back within virtual bounds by ear-mounted stimulus-delivery devices -- has implications that could profoundly reshape our relationships with domesticated animals, each other, and the landscape.

In fact, after our hour-long conversation, it became clear to Venue that Anderson, a soft-spoken federal research scientist who admits to taping a paper list of telephone numbers on the back of his decidedly unsmart phone, keeps exciting if unlikely company with the vanguard of the New Aesthetic, writer and artist James Bridle's term for an emerging way of perceiving (and, in this case, apportioning) digital information under the influence of the various media technologies -- satellite imagery, RFID tags, algorithmic glitches, and so on -- through which we now filter the world.

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The Google Maps rainbow plane, an iconic image of the New Aesthetic for the way in which it accidentally captures the hyperspectral oddness of new representational technologies and image-compression algorithms on a product intended for human eyes.

After all, Anderson's directional virtual fencing is nothing less than augmented reality for cattle, a bovine New Aesthetic: the creation of a new layer of perceptual information that can redirect the movement of livestock across remote landscapes in real-time response to lines humans can no longer see. If gathering cows on horseback gave rise to the cowboy narratives of the West, we might ask in this context, what new mythologies might Anderson's satellite-enabled, autonomous gather give rise to?

Our discussion ranged from robotic rats and sheep laterality to the advantages of GPS imprecision and the possibility of high-tech herds bred to suit the topography of particular property. The edited transcript appears below.

• • •

Nicola Twilley: I thought I'd start with a really basic question, which is why you would want to make a virtual fence rather than a physical one. After all, isn't the role of fencing to make an intangible, human-determined boundary into a tangible one, with real, physical effects?

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Pasture fence (Cheyenne Fence)

Dean M. Anderson: Let me put it this way, in really practical terms: When it comes to managing animals, every conventional fence that I have ever built has been in the wrong place the next year.

That said, I always kid people when I give a talk. I say, "Don't go out and sell your U.S. Steel stock -- because we are still going to need conventional fencing along airport runways, interstates, railroad right-of-ways, and so on." The reason why is because, when you talk about virtual fencing, you're talking about modifying animal behavior.

Then I always ask this question of the audience: "Is there anybody who will raise their hand, who is one hundred percent predictable, one hundred percent of the time?"

The thing about animal behavior is that it's not one hundred percent predictable, one hundred percent of the time. We don't know all of the integrated factors that go into making you turn left, when you leave the building, rather than right and so on. Once you realize that virtual fencing is capitalizing on modifying animal behavior, then you also realize that if there are any boundaries that, for safety or health reasons, absolutely cannot be breached, then virtual fencing is not the methodology of choice.

I always start with that disclaimer. Now, to get back to your question about why you'd want to make a virtual fence: On a worldwide basis, animal distribution remains a challenge, whether it's elephants in Africa or Hereford cows in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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Singing Bull Ranch

You will have seen this, although you may not have recognized exactly what you were looking at. For example, if you fly into Albuquerque or El Paso airports, you will come in quite low over rangeland. If you see a drinking water location, you will see that the area around that watering point looks as brown and devoid of vegetation as the top of this table, whereas, out at the far distance from the drinking water, there may be plants that have never seen a set of teeth, a jaw, or any utilization at all.

So you have the problem of non-uniform utilization of the landscape, with some places that are over utilized and other places that are underutilized. The over utilized locations with exposed soil are then vulnerable to erosion from wind and water, which then lead to all sorts of other challenges for those of us who want to be ecologically correct in our thinking and management actions.

Even as a college student, animal distribution was something that I was taught was challenging and that we didn't have an answer to. In fact, I recently wrote a review article that showed that, just in the last few years, we have used more than sixty-eight different strategies to try to affect distribution. These include putting a fence in, developing drinking water in a new location, putting supplemental feed in different locations, changing the times you put out feed, putting in artificial shade, so that animals would move to that location -- there are a host of things that we have tried. And they all work under certain conditions. Some of them work even better when they're used synergistically. There are a lot of combinations -- whatever n factorial is for sixty-eight.

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Cattle clustered under a neatly labeled portable shade structure (University of Kentucky College of Agriculture)

But one thing that all of them basically don't allow is management in real time. This is a challenge. Think of this landscape -- the Chihuahuan desert, which, by the way, is the largest desert in North America. If you've been here during our monsoon, when we (sometimes) receive our mean annual nine-inches plus of precipitation, you'll see that where Nicola is sitting, she can be soaking wet, while Geoff and I, just a few feet away, stay bone dry. Precipitation patterns in this environment can be like a knife cut.

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Students learning rangeland analysis at the Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center (J. Victor Espinoza/NMSU Agricultural Communications)

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Presented by

Geoff Manaugh & Nicola Twilley

Geoff Manaugh writes at BLDGBLOG. Nicola Twilley is the author of Edible Geography. In 2012-13, they are traveling to sites around the United States with their portable-media project, Venue.

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