Should farmers make changes to cattle housing to minimise the risk of heat stress in dairy cows? A new research project aims to address this to ensure sustainable milk production and improve cow welfare as climate change increases temperatures.
The Universities of Reading, Essex, Cardiff and Writtle University College are collaborating on a £1.24 million BBSRC-funded research project 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.
Researchers will explore 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, impact fertility and affect the immune system and overall welfare.
Chris Reynolds, Professor of Animal and Dairy Sciences at the University of Reading, said: “Heat stress due to climate change could have severe negative consequences for the health and productivity of dairy cows. Lactating cows have a high rate of metabolism, which makes them less tolerant of high temperatures. Research is essential to inform and shape future cow management strategies and building designs.”
Keeping an eye on the herd
Research will take place at the University of Reading’s Centre for Dairy Research (CEDAR) and six commercial dairy farms across the UK. Cow behaviour will be continuously monitored using tracking sensors that record movement, activity and space-use for each animal in the herd.
Detailed observations of the microclimates, including temperature, humidity, air quality and ventilation, will also be obtained and combined with physiological data.
Cows will adapt their behaviour to cope with high temperatures and humidity. This could include increasing water intake, seeking shade or areas of increased ventilation, or other behavioural responses.
Edward Codling, Professor of Mathematical Biology at the University of Essex, 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.”
Zhiwen Luo, Professor in Architectural and Urban Science at Cardiff University, said: “We have to respond to the changing environment and through better understanding of how cows interact with building microclimates, design housing and management systems that minimize heat stress and enable more sustainable dairy systems.”
First of its kind
The research is reportedly the first of its kind, using bespoke animal tracking and environmental sensors from industry collaborators Omnisense and Smartbell to model how building design can influence microclimates and cow behaviour.
The project has support from AHDB (the UK Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board), The Dairy Group, Etex, Innovation for Agriculture, and Map of Ag, as well as Defra (the UK government’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).
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.”