As Manifest Destiny spread toward the Pacific in the 1800s, the humble fence post—a signal that land had been claimed, if not yet developed—became the opening salvo of a society that would indelibly change the landscape of the American West.
Yet there may come a day when many of those fences fall. A recent interview published by Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh profiles a USDA scientist named Dean M. Anderson, whose research focuses on virtual fencing, a concept by which farmers could control their livestock using GPS-controlled electronic sensors (a bit like an electronic dog collar). The technology has the potential to make farms more environmentally sustainable, by allowing farmers to manage where their cattle graze, and to cut down on the manual labor involved with rebuilding fences.
"It never made sense to me that we use static tools to manage dynamic resources," says Anderson, who runs the Jornada Experimental Range in New Mexico. At Jornada, he’s prototyping devices that give cows a small shock as they run up against an electronically defined border. As he tells Twilley and Manaugh, there are quite a few challenges with figuring out what every animal responds to and how they learn. But ultimately, the technology could make it far easier (and cheaper) for farmers to implement "rotational farming," a process of cutting up land into smaller paddocks to control how quickly it becomes overgrazed:
With the virtual paddock you can just program the polygon to move spatially and temporally over the landscape. Even the shape of the virtual paddock can be dynamic in time and space as well. It can be slowed down where there’s abundant forage, and sped up where forage is limited so you have a completely dynamic, flexible system in which to manage free-ranging animals.
Twilley compares Anderson’s work to a "bovine New Aesthetic," a tongue-in-cheek reference to the nascent term for our culture of ubiquitous computing, RFID tags, and Street View, but also notes that the biggest challenge may come from the other side of fence (so to speak). "I was particularly taken with the question of whether humans will always need fences," she said over email, "as well as how profound an effect the removal of these physical landmarks will have on everything from property law to our ability to navigate the landscape using visual cues."