Scott Pham for NPR
Dairy cows feed at Heins Family Farm near Higginsville, Mo. Fans and misters keep the barns cool during this summer's record temperatures.
Dairy cows feed at Heins Family Farm near Higginsville, Mo. Fans and misters keep the barns cool during this summer's record temperatures. Scott Pham for NPR
When it's hot and humid, you probably don't want to move much and aren't very hungry. The same goes for cows; but when they don't eat, farmers lose money.
Researchers at the University of Missouri think they can help avoid those losses. They've produced a new mobile app that can detect the threat of heat stress in cows using nothing more than a smartphone.
Courtesy of the University of Missouri
The new smartphone app Thermal Aid can help farmers detect the threat of heat stress in cows.
Heat stress can persist for three days before an animal starts eating less. The way University of Missouri researchers see it, that's three days of missed opportunities to cool down a cow and keep it healthy. The mobile app they've produced, called Thermal Aid and scheduled for release this fall, puts the information farmers need right in their hands.
"The thing that dawned on us is that we collect all this data, we publish all these papers [and] go to scientific meetings, but the producers aren't using it," says Don Spiers, the project's lead researcher.
A Calculator For The Farm
At the university-owned research farm in Columbia, Mo., on a recent summer day, the sun is high overhead, and there is no cloud cover. The air is thick and humid, and it will stay this way after the sun goes down.
Research assistant Brad Scharf shows a group of teenagers clad in jeans and cowboy boots how to measure a cow's respiration. The app is still being tested, and these members from the 4-H Club and the National FFA Organization, formerly the Future Farmers of America, are the testers.
The app is a calculator of sorts. It takes the breaths per minute along with information about the cow's breed, type, what it's eating and other basic information. Then, it crunches the data and tells you how the cow's feeling in this environment. Spiers says it's surprisingly simple.
"It will automatically pull in the air temperature and humidity so that the producers or student can look at this later to see how hot their animals were under these conditions," he explains. "Then they can work with [the animals]. They can treat them differently, depending on how stressed they are."
Farmers often use fans, water misters and shades to help cool down their animals. The app can help them figure out which cows need these things most and which ones don't. And it looks into the future, too: The app uses weather forecasting to show how the cow will likely feel in a few days.
Will Farmers Actually Use It?
Scott Pham for NPR
Herd manager Chris Heins greets a calf at his dairy farm near Higginsville, Mo. It will be about two years before a calf like this one is ready to be milked, so keeping them comfortable and healthy is a top concern.
Herd manager Chris Heins greets a calf at his dairy farm near Higginsville, Mo. It will be about two years before a calf like this one is ready to be milked, so keeping them comfortable and healthy is a top concern. Scott Pham for NPR
At Heins Family Farm near Higginsville, Mo., dozens of fans and misters run at full blast, keeping the barns cool for the 600 dairy cattle inside. Herd manager Chris Heins can tell a lot about a cow just by looking at it.
"You see how she's chewing her cud there?" he asks, referring to a cow lying down on its sand bedding. "That's a good sign that she's comfortable. You don't see her breathing [really] fast."
Heins has a lot of experience and six generations of family farming behind him. But if technology can tell him something more, he's all for it. Heins, who uses an Android smartphone in the field, thinks the Thermal Aid app could help him monitor conditions in different areas of his barns.
Reaching Across Generations
Back in the cool, air-conditioned classroom at the University of Missouri farm, the teens finally get to sit down with the app. It comes easily to Kendra Stinson, whose family raises cattle and pigs in Prairie Home, Mo.
"I think I would actually [use the app because] I always have my smartphone with me, so I could just pull it out," Stinson says.
Still, when we're talking about people who aren't already using mobile technology, Thermal Aid can be a tough sell.
"I know my grandpa; he's not really good at technology. But he said that he would like to try it out. So hopefully we're making some headway with it," Stinson says.
When Thermal Aid is released this fall, Spiers, the project's lead researcher, wants to send an outreach team to producers to demonstrate the benefits of this new high-tech tool.