Heat stress? Now there's a cow app for that

Jul 18, 2012

When a cow is stressed from the heat, it affects a producer’s bottom line. The animal eats less, meaning less mass in beef cattle. For dairy farmers, the hurt comes in the form of a 10 to 20 percent loss in milk. Researchers at the University of Missouri think we can change this trend by putting information in the hands of producers. They’ve built a tool that can detect the threat of heat stress in specific animals before it starts.

At the research farm owned by the University of Missouri, the sun is high overhead with no cloud cover. The air is thick and humid and it’ll stay this way for the rest of the summer. University researchers are leading a group of 4H youths to the cow pens.

Research assistant Brad Scharf briefly shows the kids how to check a cow’s respiration rate using an ipod’s stopwatch app.

“You can see the flank movements. Really shallow. Hopefully you can see em all. So what I want you to do is--hopefully you should have a stopwatch of some sort on those things. And so, basically you’re going to start it. Watch for 30 seconds or so. Get the number, multiply it by two, to get breaths per minute. Make sense?” Scharf explained.

The kids take off for the pen, scaling the fence with ease.

“Don’t jump!” Scharf said, laughing.

The kids want to get close to the animals so they can see the flanks. Once they’ve counted, they can put this number into the mobile app created by the University of Missouri. It’s called Thermal Aid.

The point of all this, says Don Spiers, Lead Researcher on the project, is to combine data about the environment, with data from the animals.

“It will automatically pull in the air temperature and humidity so that the producers or student can look at this later and figure out which animals are really stressed in the heat and which ones aren’t. So that they can work with them and treat them differently depending on how stressed they are,” Spiers said.

According to Spiers’ research, it takes about three days for the stress to affect an animal’s feed intake; so the goal is to find early warning signs using what we already know about the animals through research.

The problem, according to Spiers, is getting the information out there.

“The thing that dawned on us is that we collect all this data, we publish all these papers go to scientific meetings. It’s wonderful. But, the producers aren’t using it. We said, we’ve gotta have something that will tell them right there, while they’re standing there, how how this animal is, how how that animal is, so you can make a decision, while you’re standing there and the apps are a beautiful way of doing that,” Spiers said.

At Heins family farm in Higginsville, Missouri dozens of fans and misters are running to keep the 600 cows cool in their barns. Herd manager Chris Heins spends a lot of time walking through his herd and making sure each animal is comfortable.

“I throw around the term cow comfort. it’s something we use every day. Basically the more comfortable and at home a cow feels, the healthier she’s going to be, the happier she’s going to be. And as a result of those things, she’ll produce more milk,” Heins said.

These days, a big part of cow comfort is keeping cool. This afternoon there’s a rare storm on the horizon and a slight breeze rolls through the open air barns. Even so, the fans are going at full blast. Heins points out a cow who’s just settled into its sand bedding.

“She’s lying down. You see how she’s chewing her cud there? So that’s a good sign that she’s comfortable. You don’t see her breathing real fast. She’s breathing at a real regular pace. And so, she’s not heat stressed there,” Heins said.

Heins can remember particular cows three generations back. He knows them backward and forwards. But if technology can tell him something more, he’s all for it. I tell him about the Thermal Aid app, and he immediately knows how he’d use it.

“That would be a great, just monitoring device. To see how different areas of the barns are, address problem situations. Like if you had, say a certain corner of a barn that wasn’t cooling adequately, you could install an extra fan,” Heins said.

In the cool, air conditioned classroom on the University farm, Kendra Stinson and the rest of the 4h kids finally get to sit down with the app.

“I think i would actually do it. I always have my smartphone with me, I could just pull it out,” Stinson said.

Stinson and her family raise cattle and pigs in Prairie Home Missouri.

“But I’m not sure about the older generation...I know my grandpa, he’s not really good at technology. But he said he’d like to try it out. So, hopefully we’re making some headway with it,” Stinson said.

For producers who aren’t already using mobile technology, an app can be a hard sell. Spiers hopes that it’s released this fall, he’ll be able to train an outreach team that can meet with producers and show them the benefits of the tool.