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Don't Fence Them in?


Let's talk about dogs and fences and cattle!

More Americans have dogs than have fences, which is why somebody invented so-called invisible fences. They work something like this:

Around the perimeter of your yard, you bury a wire that sends out signals to a collar on your dog. Not signals, actually: more like a mild shock. Walk your dog up to the perimeter and shock him enough times, and he'll want no part of crossing that line. Or so the theory goes.

Of course, if the dog really wants to chase a squirrel that's taunting him from the street, he may well bolt through the invisible fence. And if another dog wants to charge in and start a fight, there's no fence - invisible or otherwise - to stop him.

Still, could the invisible-fence idea work on cattle, which run in herds? Surely such a thing could not take the place of trusty barbed wire and cowboy ranch hands on horses.

Maybe not, but it hasn't stopped inventors from trying to develop virtual fences for herd animals. The weekly USA Today newspaper reports that a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist in New Mexico and an electronics company in Kansas are separately working on devices that are slipped around the necks of the lead steers in a herd. Those devices deliver either mild shocks of the dog-fence variety or actual voice commands sent via satellite - even chirps and "Whoop-ee-ti-yi-o-type" songs that cowboys sometimes use to soothe and direct a herd.

The agriculture researcher, Dean Anderson, says the wranglers can even spend most of their time in a nice, cool trailer nearby, venturing out only to check on the cattle or to change batteries in the electric collars.

Skeptics note that no friendly chatter in a steer's ear could stop a stampede. And terrain and cloudy days could interfere with satellite signals. And in a herd of a 100 or so look-alike cattle, picking out the leader types - the alpha cows - can be a pretty tough job.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.