Virtual fence could modernize the Old West

— -- Dean Anderson insists he doesn't want to put cowboys out of business. But he would like to see them get more indoor work.

Anderson, an animal science researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is working on a system that will allow cowboys to herd their cattle remotely by singing commands and whispering into Bessie's ears via radio and tracking her movements by satellite and computer.

"I could be sitting in my office here and programming cows in Mongolia. It's not technologically impossible," says Anderson.

The technology isn't exactly ready yet, but Anderson and others involved in researching the concept of "virtual fencing" of cattle and other livestock say it is getting close.

"It's not a silver bullet," he insists. "You're not going to spend a year in Mazatlan and run your cows by computer. You need to have a human on the ground."

No kidding, says Gary Morton, who runs 2,000 head of yearling cattle at Valles Caldera in the Jemez Mountains range of northern New Mexico.

"They've been saying cowboys and the way we do business is dying for the last 100 years," Morton says. "But we're still around."

Competing systems

For more than a century, ranchers in the West have kept cattle in place with fences of barbed wire, split wood and, more recently, electrified wires. But cattle must also be moved around to distribute grazing across the range and prevent them from depleting water sources.

That is what cowboys have been doing since the 19th century. For generations, cowboys have used commands such as "gee" and "haw" to tell their cattle to move right or left.

Anderson, a researcher at the USDA's Jornada Experimental Range at Las Cruces, N.M., says he has built radios that attach to an animal's head and allow a person at the other end to issue a range of commands — gentle singing, sharp commands, or a buzz like a bee or snake — to get the cattle to move where one wants them to.

"My song includes words like 'come-on girls, let's move.' I also use a clicking sound with my tongue between saying those words. Basically it is my song, and every person who moves cattle or any animals has one."

Anderson has a patent and has applied for another one, but he is not the only one in the game. A Kansas company, AgriTech Electronics, also has a patent and is seeking another one on a system much like Anderson is developing. Its system uses Global Positioning System satellite tracking and relies on warning tones and small electric shocks, without differentiating between right and left sides of the animal's head, to keep cattle within a set of range boundaries, manager Bob Marsh says.

Marsh says the concept still faces technical hurdles: developing a battery with enough life, and making the device durable enough to withstand months on an animal's head while being light enough not to harm or bother it.

"I think the point will come where it will be practical and be used," Marsh says. "I would like to say that's in the next three to five years."

Anderson hopes cowboys and wranglers will be able to do much of their work from an air-conditioned office, getting out on their horses once in a while to check on the cattle in person — and perhaps change the batteries in Bessie's headset.

Price may be barrier

Can the cowboy, the icon of Western lore, really be forced to change or even go the way of the Pony Express?

"Ha ha ha. No, it's not a threat at all," Morton says. "I don't think it will work. I know I've got satellite TV and satellite Internet, and once it gets cloudy or the weather is bad, they both go out."

Morton — founder of the Working Ranch Cowboys Association, based in Amarillo, Texas — says cost alone would make it impractical for most ranchers.

Anderson says it would cost $900 today to put a radio device on one head of cattle, but he says costs will fall and the entire herd wouldn't have to be outfitted, just the "leaders."

Much of his research has focused on how cattlemen can identify which cattle in their herds are the ones that the others follow. He says as few as 3% of a herd may need to be wired up.

And Marsh says it's not cowboys they want to see vanish.

"Hopefully, it will put the fence companies out of business," he says.