Research to help hot and bothered dairy cows

  • Date

    Fri 28 Apr 23

Dairy cow

We are making our homes fit for purpose to cope with climate change, but should we also be doing the same for our farm animals?

A new research project involving the University of Essex aims to address the problem of dairy cow heat stress to ensure sustainable milk production and improve cow welfare as temperatures look set to increase in the future.

Researchers are seeking to understand the interaction between temperature, “microclimates” within farm buildings, and cow physiology and behaviour.

At high temperatures, dairy cows are known to suffer heat stress, which can reduce milk yield, impair fertility, and negatively affect their immune system and overall welfare. Such problems are likely to be compounded by temperature increases due to climate change, experts say.

Essex is collaborating with the Universities of Reading and Cardiff and Writtle University College on a £1.24 million research project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, that aims to understand and address the causes of dairy cow heat stress within farm buildings. The project will bring together experts in animal and dairy sciences, mathematical modelling and statistics, and building design engineering.

Research will take place at the University of Reading’s Centre for Dairy Research and six commercial dairy farms across the UK. Individual cow behaviour will be continuously monitored using tracking sensors that record patterns of movement, activity, and space-use for each animal in the herd. Detailed observations of barn “microclimates” (temperature, humidity, air quality, ventilation) will also be obtained and combined with physiological data (cow body temperature, milk production, health).

Professor Edward Codling, from Essex's Department of Mathematical Sciences, said: “Our tracking sensors will allow us to analyse how indoor-housed dairy cows respond to, and cope with, heat stress in an unprecedented level of detail. By combining animal tracking data with continuous sensor monitoring of barn microclimates we will be able to model and predict the complex interactions between cow behavioural choices and their housed environment.”

The approach the team is taking, using bespoke animal tracking and environmental sensors from industry collaborators Omnisense and Smartbell to model how building design influences indoor microclimates and cow behaviour, has never been done in this way before.

The data collected will inform development of housing designed to reduce heat stress and improve welfare.

Dr Jonathan Amory, Principal Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Writtle University College, said: “The climate crisis is bringing new challenges to animal welfare. By utilising new technology and working with industry, we can develop innovative solutions for improving livestock management.”

The research consortium also has industry support from the UK Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, The Dairy Group, Etex, Innovation for Agriculture and Map of Ag, as well as the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.