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

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University of Missouri researchers have developed a mobile phone application called Thermal Aid that can tell producers right away how an animal is handling heat stress. It may easily provide critical data, but the question is: Who’s going to use it? (Scott Pham for Harvest Public Media)
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When a cow is stressed from the heat, it can hurt a producer’s bottom line.  The animal eats less, meaning less mass for beef cattle. Dairy farmers can suffer a 10 percent to 20 percent loss in milk production.  

Researchers at the University of Missouri think they can limit this loss by helping producers identify early signs of heat stress, which typically takes about three days to affect an animal’s feed intake.  They’ve produced a mobile application — called Thermal Aid — that pretty much hands the critical data to farmers.

“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,” said Don Spiers, lead researcher for Thermal Aid.

On a recent afternoon at one of the university’s research farms, several researchers explained the product and tested it out with a group of 4H youths.

Research assistant Brad Scharf took the kids up to a penned herd and showed them how to measure a cow’s respiration. 

“You can see the flank movements,” he said. “Really shallow.”

The teen-agers, in jeans and cowboy boots, scaled the pen’s fence and jumped right in.  They pulled up the stopwatch app on their iPod Touches to time cow breaths the way you would time a pulse.  

The next step was to put that number into the Thermal Aid application.

“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,” researcher Spiers said.

This data assessment is available already in what’s known as the Temperature Humidity Index, or the THI table, which looks a lot like a grade school multiplication table with the temperature on one side, and the humidity on the top.  In between is a grid of numbers, most of them shaded bright, hot colors.  Producers plug in temperature, humidity, draw two lines, and where they meet is the THI score.  

Spiers said there are two problems with using the table.  First of all, it doesn’t give specific information for specific situations.  What if your cows are a certain breed that heat up a little faster than others?  Maybe that orange is actually a red and you should be taking immediate action.

Secondly — and most importantly — nobody wants to stand around the barn reading a multiplication table.

“We said, we’ve got to have something that will tell them right there, while they’re standing there, how this animal is, how that animal is,” Spiers said, “so you can make a decision, while you’re standing there, and the apps are a beautiful way of doing that.”

Chris Heins, herd manager at Heins Family Farm in Higginsville, Mo., says dairy farming is all about cow comfort: “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.”  (Scott Pham for Harvest Public Media)

But will farmers use the technology?

Chris Heins, herd manager at Heins Family Farm in Higginsville, Mo., said the Thermal Aid sounds promising.  

“That would be a great, just monitoring device,” he said. “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.”

Still, Heins has an Android phone and a Twitter account.  He often tweets photos from the field and participates in agriculture-related hashtags.  So using his mobile phone in the field feels natural.

But for producers who aren’t already using mobile technology, Thermal Aid may not be so useful.

“I think I would actually do it” said Kendra Stinson, one of the 4H students who tested Thermal Aid on the university farm.  “I always have my smartphone with me. I could just pull it out.  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.”

Thermal Aid is expected to be released this fall. Spiers said an outreach team will be meeting with producers and showing them the benefits of the tool.