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The drought now ravaging the Midwest has devastated farm crops. It's also making life miserable for livestock and the farmers trying to keep them cool. This fall, researchers at the University of Missouri hope to make life a little easier for both. They've produced a mobile app that can detect the threat of heat stress in cows with nothing more than a Smartphone.
Scott Pham of member station KBIA has that story.
SCOTT PHAM, BYLINE: 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 that cow down and keep it healthy. The mobile app they've produced, called Thermal Aid, puts the information farmers need right in their hands.
Don Spiers is the lead researcher for the project.
DON SPIERS: 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.
PHAM: At the research farm in Columbia, owned by the University, the sun is high overhead and there's no cloud cover. The air today is thick and humid and it'll stay this way after the sun goes down.
BRAD SCHARF: You can see the flank movements. Really shallow. So what I want you to do is you got...
PHAM: Research assistant Brad Scharf is showing a group of teenagers how to measure a cow's respiration. The app is still being tested. And today, this small group from the 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America are the testers. In jeans and cowboy boots, they don't think twice before climbing the fence of the pen and jumping in.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Up next. Hey, don't jump.
PHAM: They want to get close to the animal to see its flank better. They're watching and timing its breathing to get the animal's breaths per minute. 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 so on. Then it crunches the data and tells you how the cow's feeling in this environment.
Don Spiers says it's surprisingly simple.
SPIERS: It will automatically pull in the air temperature and humidity, so that the producers or student can look at this later, to see hot their animals were under these conditions. And figure out which animals are really stressed in the heat and which ones aren't. And so, they can work with them - they can treat them differently, depending on how stressed they are.
PHAM: 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 three days from now.
But, will farmers actually use it? Let's go to Higginsville, Missouri to see if there's a place for the Thermal Aid app in the field.
(SOUNDBITE OF COWS)
PHAM: At Heins Family Farm, dozens of fans and misters run at full blast, keeping the barns cool for the 600 dairy cattle inside. Herd Manager Chris Heins shows me how to check a cow for heat stress.
CHRIS HEINS: She's lying down. And you see how she's chewing her cud there? So that's a good sign that she's comfortable. And you don't see her breathing real fast. She's breathing at a real regular pace. And so, she's not heat stressed there.
PHAM: Heins can tell a lot about a cow just by looking at it. He's got 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 thinks he'd like the Thermal Aid app.
HEINS: That would be a great just-monitoring device, to see how different areas of the barns are. You could 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.
PHAM: Heins is comfortable with technology. He's got an Android Smartphone that he uses in the field.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CONVERSATION)
PHAM: Back in the cool, air conditioned classroom at the University farm, the teens finally get to sit down with the app. It comes easily to them.
KENDRA STINSON: I think I would actually do it 'cause I always have my Smartphone with me. So I could just pull it out.
PHAM: Kendra Stinson and her family raise cattle and pigs in Prairie Home, Missouri. She's comfortable with the app. But when we're talking about people who aren't already using mobile technology, Thermal Aid can be a tough sell.
STINSON: 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.
PHAM: Thermal Aid is expected to be released this fall when Apple comes out with its newest operating system. When that happens, researcher Don Spiers wants to send an outreach team to producers, to demonstrate the benefits of this new high tech tool.
For NPR News, I'm Scott Pham in Columbia.
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