This is the sixth in a series of stories delving into the various research that College of Science faculty members at the University of Findlay are working on. In an effort to show readers, in part, what UF offers its students in the areas of science, these stories will reveal the diverse methods, processes and topics that faculty shares with students.
Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ve at least entertained getting a Fitbit, a smart watch or, at the very least, an app on your phone to track your wellbeing. It’s fairly common, and it’s an easy way to keep tabs on things. For Erin Alava, Ph.D., an assistant professor of animal science at University of Findlay, however, this sort of device comes in handy for keeping track of cattle.
Alava, helped along by a faculty development grant and a match of funding from the Animal Science Program, acquired some Heatime Pro System collars for the cattle that reside at UF’s Western Farm, and began to use them last summer to gather data for individual undergraduate research and mentorship with students. The collars, Alava said, are more prominent in the dairy industry, but work just as well for the beef cattle at UF. “We’re adapting them for use with our beef cattle because more and more people want to use them for that purpose,” she said. “So, we’re figuring out how to translate the information to these cows.”
The collars go around the animals’ necks and serve as a management system that provides alerts to Alava and her students through computers and cell phone apps. There are transponders set up all across the farm that record and store data every two minutes for a twenty-four-hour period. “They work on a biometric level, basically,” Alava said. “They have a microphone, a pedometer and quite sophisticated software.” The collars take note of a host of other things that are useful toward their care. “Maybe they’re not feeling well,” she added. “Students can tell, then, if they’re heat stressed; maybe they’re getting ready to have a baby. It’s valuable info and any of the student workers or employees can choose to look at it.”
As far as things to look at, it goes quite a bit further than just stress, steps and sounds. The data allows for any differences in the habits of the cattle, such as locomotion, rumination and regurgitation of cud, to be noted and studied by the classes, and all are often linked to the different grazing habits of the animals. According to Alava, she and her students are looking at how often the cows are moving from paddock to paddock. There is limited grazing resources at the farm, so looking at their movements and then tying that back to the performance of an animal is essential,” she said. This all helps with decision-making regarding the care of the animals, relating back to things like the grass at the farm, and how the growing patterns and nutrition availability of it affects them. “It’s a fairly wholistic in approach,” Alava explained, “because with livestock production it’s hard to look at just one individual thing.”
The students in Alava’s animal nutrition classes go from the direct presence of the livestock at the farm to the data in the classroom, seeing and working with the information gathered, and attempting to make sense of it. With the information gleaned from the collars in front of them, students in the classroom can attempt to determine what happened on a specific day that might have affected a cow’s behavior or health. “They can see that on this particular day we moved them across the farms, or gave them vaccines or whatever,” Alava said. “So, it’s interesting and beneficial from a research standpoint as well as a management one. If they can have a working knowledge like this, the students are more marketable after graduation.”
Alava said that she would like to start having students look at new things as the use of the collars gets more familiar to her and them. She wants to begin having classes research the intricacies of different breeds, for instance, and how each compares to another. “The more we can expand with these collars and the information from them,” she said, “the more students will be ahead of the pack.”