Animal science researchers with the Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) will be testing a virtual fence for cows and other livestock this summer. It’s akin to an invisible fence for a dog, triggering a harmless but attention-getting shock if the animal crosses an unseen boundary.
“It’s not a sharp pain. It’s like a mild punch,” says Anthony Parker, a professor of animal sciences and one of the CFAES researchers who will test the virtual fence.
Each cow or other animal will wear a smart collar guided by GPS. Then, using a device called eShepherd, the farmer will be able to remotely monitor the animals’ location at any time. Even when a farmer is a country away from the herd, he or she will be able to move the fence, redrawing the line on a laptop screen.
The eShepherd device was created by the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources for that country, which has a lot of livestock. Agersens, an Australian-based company, will be working with Parker, a native of Australia, and his colleagues to test how well the virtual fence leads cows to the farmer’s desired location. Any cow that drifts will hear a warning sound first. Then, if the cow continues forward, it will feel a shock.
Part of Parker’s role is to determine whether the shock is sufficient to keep cattle in line. To figure that out, researchers will place hay and additional feed just outside the boundaries of the invisible fence. Then they will watch to see how many shocks, if any, a cow will endure to reach the coveted food.
The testing will be done after investigators receive the approval of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of OSU’s Office of Responsible Research Practices.
If an animal gets past the shock and keeps going, another shock is issued a few yards away. But even after that second shock, a cow might continue walking.
Animals are individuals, too
It may not work on some cows, because anyone who’s been around livestock — or rambunctious kids at recess — knows this: “Some may not be compliant with the system,” Parker says.
Not all animals experience sensation in the same way, so the same shock might not be enough to deter all of the livestock from straying.
"It’s like with humans,” Parker says. “Some people — you could thump them on their arm with your fist, and it wouldn’t hurt them. Others might feel pain and even swell up. Animals are no different.”
If eShepherd is successful in moving and containing livestock, the device could help farmers keep a field more evenly grazed. All creatures of habit — cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock — tend to graze in the same areas, ignoring some grassy regions and dropping their waste in the same area where they graze. And keeping cows and their waste far away from streams and rivers, particularly on hot days, can be challenging.
Farmers try to herd cattle to various regions of a field, including hillsides; but cattle and other livestock can, like people, be stubborn about changing their routine, Parker says.
“Cattle and sheep are very smart animals,” he adds. “They have a pattern to the way they move. If you don’t understand how they graze, how they move, where they live and who their friends are, you will end up with a lot of problems.”
Cattle tend to graze in low-lying areas, avoiding slopes. With the virtual fence, a farmer could more easily herd the cattle onto slopes or other areas and away from stream and creek banks, Parker adds.
Most livestock fences are wooden, metal or electric, and they’re not easy to move. A farmer with the virtual fence could change the boundaries daily.
How quickly the cows will adapt is uncertain, says Kirsten Nickles, a CFAES graduate student who will be working with Parker to test the eShepherd device.
The learning curve might be shorter for calves if they see older cows cross a barrier and get shocked, she says.
“I know if I see a person get shocked, I’m not going to do what they did. But with cattle, who knows what they’re thinking!”