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GPS headsets make sure the cows come home

"Helmet" holds electronics device containing sound-transmitting earphones and a GPS device to monitor the animals' whereabouts.

Cows with headsets

From the plains of southern New Mexico, we bring you a story of headset-wearing cows. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are teaming up to remotely corral cattle using a wireless device that sends sound straight into the bovines' ears. HDTV-watching pigs can't be far behind.

The solar-powered "Ear-A-Round" is a naugahyde "helmet" held in place by the cow's ears. Atop the holster sits an electronics device hooked to sound-transmitting stereo earphones and containing a GPS unit that could let farmers monitor the animals' whereabouts from afar.

"It's a marriage between biology and electronics," said USDA research animal scientist Dean M. Anderson, who has been collaborating with MIT on the project for the last several years, but has focused on the concept of "directional virtual fencing (PDF)" for more than three decades.

"When I started, the letters 'GPS' meant nothing to me," Anderson said. "But...animal distribution on the landscape has been an age-old challenge. With free-ranging animals, you get areas on the landscape that are overused and other areas that are underused."

The patent-pending device is scheduled to be tested on about nine cows later this month at the USDA's Jornada Experimental Range in Las Cruces, N.M. Anderson noted that not all cattle in a given location will need to be fitted with the instrument--only herd leaders. The animals that will participate in the early testing are currently undergoing a sort of "IQ test for cows" that will identify herd leaders in that group, the researcher said.

The animals will be hearing a range of noises in their ears as they graze--from recordings of Anderson's voice offering such encouragement as, "C'mon girls, let's go," to the sounds of all-terrain vehicles sometimes used in lieu of horses to gather animals.

"Using familiar sounds...this is the key," Anderson told CNET News. "Animals can be trained. It doesn't have to be the voice of an individual. It could be things as strange as train whistles or other types of audio cues."

If the sound cues don't work, the device can emit a small electrical shock to move cows in the desired direction.