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Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. Visit his ...

Every time we had to fix a fence my father cursed the British. The chainsaw was thrown into the back of the pickup because we would have to hack our way through the multiflora rose bushes that had overtaken the edges of the pasture. They clung to our jeans and scratched our faces and arms and played a notable role in turning everyone’s mood sour. My father told again how the English settlers had brought multiflora rose to the colonies to use as natural fencing, and what a stupid idea that was. Now it had spread everywhere, threatening every pasture.

According to the internet, multiflora rose actually came from Asia and wasn’t used in the U.S. to keep livestock contained until the 1930s and '40s. However, having fixed enough fence myself, I think my father’s point still stands.

Recently, there has been a push to replace traditional fencing methods again, this time with modern technology. Nofence, founded in Norway in 2011, claims to be the first company to offer virtual fencing to farmers. Using GPS, a farmer can map out the range that their livestock can venture. When the animal gets close to the edge of this border, their collar will emit a high-pitched warning sound. If the animal still attempts to cross the invisible line, it will receive a shock equivalent to that from an electric fence. Recently, several other businesses have begun developing similar e-fencing solutions, using a signal from a central “station” on each farm instead of GPS.

The general concept of virtual fencing has been around for a long time and will be familiar to most pet owners. Richard Peck patented the Invisible Fence in 1973, using a cable that had to be buried underground. However, in order to be considered viable for livestock, technology had to improve since the original prototypes, including the functionality of GPS.


In particular, the availability of virtual fencing could be a game-changer for farmers and shepherds who rotationally graze livestock, especially those moving their animals often and using temporary fencing. Not only can the farmer avoid having to pound posts and stretch a wire, but animals would be able to graze in areas where it would be difficult to erect a fence. With virtual fencing, one does not have to battle the multiflora rose any longer, nor wonder how to run fence line across a creek without it being washed away. It is also easier to keep animals out of protected areas or rough terrain without having to string wire around them. Finally, by being able to better manage grazing, there is the opportunity to create more productive pastures.

As might be imagined, virtual fencing comes with drawbacks, as well as technological growing pains that still need to be worked through. Although there are some pilot programs offering the collars for free, as well as specific grants to mitigate the costs of the system, virtual fencing is typically expensive. Nofence collars for cattle come in at $250 to $300 each, and farmers must pay approximately $50 per head in annual subscription fees. The “base station” required by other companies is also a significant investment. Because Nofence uses only GPS, the location can be imprecise in some places and the containment border can have an error of up to 15 feet. This is especially important to consider around roads and other dangerous areas. Also, while keeping animals in a specific area, virtual fencing systems can’t keep predators out in the same way that some types of physical fencing can. Finally, e-fencing shares the same universal problem with all fences: There are always going to be animals that find their way out regardless.

As far as the future of virtual fencing, time will tell as to whether it will eventually become advantageous – both economically and practically – to adopt its widespread use. (Maybe someday I’ll be cursing the Japanese that plagued us with this failed fencing alternative.) I can imagine it taking hold somewhere like Iceland, where sheep and horses graze freely in the mountains each winter, and where they have already used GPS chips in their horses for almost two decades. Maybe nomadic shepherds around the world will eventually use the technology, watching their tablets in their tents instead of following behind their herds.

There is one thing I worry about, however, if the concept of virtual fencing does take off and is found on every type of farm: How are families going to replace the character-building opportunity of pounding fenceposts in rocky ground and stretching wire through thorny bushes? Maybe – and hopefully unlike our livestock – we’ll cross that line when we get there.