What makes a happy cow?

Oregon State University dairy cows are sporting a fashionable new orange accessory, but it’s not simply a demonstration of school spirit. The pedometers, donated by Israeli company SAE Afikim, gather a variety of information on the cows’ movements by measuring the movement and position of their legs. The information will allow researchers to learn which conditions, including food, surroundings and density of cows put together, make them the happiest.

Cows at OSU are wearing pedometers to track their movements. (Photo: Theresa Hogue)

Cows at OSU are wearing pedometers to track their movements. (Photo: Theresa Hogue)

To put it simply, as OSU Extension veterinarian and researcher Aurora Villarroel says, happy cows produce the most milk, and a good indicator of a cow’s happiness is how long she spends lying down. Agitated cows pace, cows in pain can’t stay in one place long, but content cows enjoy a good nap. The pedometers will be able to show researchers which cows lie down the longest, and by altering different conditions, Villarroel and other researchers will be able to decipher what things make their cows the most content.

“It’s a way for us to interpret what they’re doing without being there 24-7 or filming them,” she said.

Pedometers are widely used today in dairy farms to detect cows in heat. Because cows dramatically increase their movement when they are in heat, the pedometers will be able to indicate when the cows are going into heat. Cows are only in heat from six to 24 hours each 21 days, and the pedometers provide 80 to 90 percent accurate heat detection, allowing dairy workers the ability to know just when to breed the cow. One dedicated worker trained to detect cows in heat by visual signs would have to spend all day simply examining cattle, with only a 50 percent accuracy rate.

The new pedometer developed by Afikim also measures lying down parameters to indicate cow welfare. Cow movement is an indicator of cow welfare. An unhappy cow is an unproductive cow.

Oregon State is the first American university to have access to the pedometers.

Afikim’s North American marketing representative Udi Golan said they made these new pedometers available to OSU at no cost because they get input from researchers about their use of the product, which helps them in development of future applications for improving herd management. The new device will soon be available for purchase by other dairies and universities.
Golan said there are many pieces of information to be gained from the new cow pedometers, including a crucial component that will save dairy owners a great deal of time and staff hours.

OSU Extension veterinarian and researcher Aurora Villarroel will use data collected by the pedometers to measure a number of issues related to cow well-being, including food, movement, type of confinement, and other issues. (Photo: Theresa Hogue)

OSU Extension veterinarian and researcher Aurora Villarroel will use data collected by the pedometers to measure a number of issues related to cow well-being, including food, movement, type of confinement, and other issues. (Photo: Theresa Hogue)

“Cows in stress hold milk,” Golan said. Conversely, cows that lie down frequently produce more milk.

The pedometers have been fitted on all 100 of OSU’s adult dairy cows, and the information is transmitted to sensors attached to milking stations at the dairy. So when the cows are lined up for milking, their leg bracelets send information directly to the milking monitor, and the information is also collected and analyzed by Afikim software (Afifarm), which can keep track of every event of every cow during her entire life. Over time, the data provides a picture of the cow’s activity level and well-being.

OSU’s cows are already fairly high tech, as they are using milk monitors purchased from Afikim. The monitors allow milkers to know a variety of information about each cow, including whether or not she’s on antibiotics and therefore her milk should not be used for human consumption, how much milk she’s producing on average, and even the level of electrical conductivity in her milk, which is an early indicator of mastitis, an infection of the udder that makes milk saltier and cuts down on milk production.

“Every day we’re late in treating mastitis, we lose milk,” that the cow can produce, he said. “That’s a lot of money (lost).”

Villarroel said the pedometers allow her to analyze data without having to go to the milking parlors every day, and once they start exploring the possibilities of the kind of information the machines can provide, they can pass on that information to farmers.

Udi Golen is a marketing representative for the Israeli company Afikim, which donated the pedometers to OSU. He said OSU is the only university in the country using the pedometers, which will be for sale soon.

Udi Golen is a marketing representative for the Israeli company Afikim, which donated the pedometers to OSU. He said OSU is the only university in the country using the pedometers, which will be for sale soon.

Ben Krahn, the manager of the OSU Dairy Center, said his team is using other technology that is new to the center, which is run by the animal sciences department in the College of Agricultural Sciences. A few weeks ago, they began using radio frequency identification tags on the cows’ ears that function as barcodes.

Cow handlers wave a wand next to them and the cow’s personal medical record immediately appears on a handheld computer. Data include the cow’s birthdate, when she was bred, who her parents are, when a veterinarian last examined her, and how much milk she has produced. Examiners can also input data into the handheld device, which is about the size of small paperback book.

~ Theresa Hogue

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