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Truth Stranger Than April Fool’s Fiction

It had to happen. Employment on grain farms has been under threat from high-tech GPS apparatus such as driverless tractors, but you’d think that the cowboy’s job would be secure.

No longer. A “virtual fence” system for cattle herds, developed by the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS), may soon be marketed by a Nova Scotia tech firm.

It gets worse. The gadget not only talks to the critters – it sings cowboy songs too.

Krimar Enterprises, based at Lower Sackville, north of Halifax, has been granted an exclusive licence to market ARS’s directional virtual fencing (DVF) system as a “type of non-wire, virtual fencing technology for cows linked to global positioning,” the U. S. agency said in a release March 25.

DVF sends electronic cues to a unit mounted on a cow’s head near its ears, so it will move in a preferred direction, according

to Dean M. Anderson, an ARS animal scientist at the Jornada Experimental Range at Las Cruces, N. M.

“The patented system is not intended to replace a rancher’s expertise, but will be used as an animal management tool,” ARS wrote. “The system will be able to steer a moving animal without inflicting physical harm.”

Cattle must be moved periodically to quality forage for optimum performance, ARS said, and those left too long in the same area also can damage a landscape by overgrazing the standing crop.

The vast spaces on many ranches also make controlling a herd’s movements challenging, said ARS, the USDA’s principal scientific research agency.

Unlike the remote electric-shock collars used in some virtual fencing systems for domestic animals, the DVF system locates cattle with global positioning and sends auditory signals, such as a human voice, that can be raised or lowered in volume, according to Anderson.

The commands, he said, can vary from familiar “gathering songs” sung by cowboys during manual roundups, to sirens designed to get cattle to move or avoid entering forbidden areas.

The system is also automated, ARS said, so ranchers can give cues at any time and track movements from a computer.

ARS patented the DVF technology based on experimental designs. Anderson said he is now working on a “commercially viable” prototype that would feature a stereo headset around each ear.

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