Sensors as a tool to measure health and happiness of cows

Sensors can do an excellent job of mapping the well-being and health of cows. For example, they can accurately measure cow behaviour day and night, both in the pasture and in the barn. The sensors can also be a tool to measure how happy and healthy a cow is. Josje Scheurwater will defend her PhD on this topic on February 29, 2024, from Utrecht University’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

Cows are often already equipped with sensors around their necks or legs that farmers use to determine when they are fertile or ready to give birth to a calf. But these sensors can teach us more about what exactly makes a cow healthy and happy.

Stress from heat and new groups

For example, Scheurwater used sensors to investigate when cows experience so-called heat stress: discomfort caused by heat. This was found to be the case in a Dutch climate at temperatures as low as 12 degrees Celsius – lower than the 16 degrees previously thought.

The sensors were also used to measure how the regrouping of cows affects their well-being. Farmers usually separate lactating cows from cows that are temporarily not milked before giving birth to a calf. This results in regroupings when the cows that resume giving milk are reintroduced to the lactating group. The data from the sensors show that these changes in group composition cause stress not only to the reintroduced cows but also to the rest of the group. As a result, the average milk production of the group went down.

Sensor in the stomach

Scheurwater also developed a new type of sensor that collects data from a cow’s stomach and transmits it wirelessly. This sensor is shaped like a capsule and remains in a cow’s reticulum, one of its stomachs, after being swallowed without the cow noticing. By measuring pressure and temperature, the sensor can monitor key cow behaviour such as drinking, eating, and ruminating. This gives an accurate 24-hour picture of how the cow is doing. The internal sensor needs to be further developed to make sure that it can last for the whole lifetime of a cow.

Earlier intervention in case of disease

Scheurwater expects that in the future the sensors can be a valuable tool for livestock farmers to keep track of the health and well-being of their cows on a large scale. With the information collected by the sensors, livestock farmers and veterinarians can better monitor the cows’ health and intervene earlier. The sensors can also help scientists. They can use them to continuously and accurately study the behaviour of cows in the barn and in the pasture to investigate what it is that makes a cow truly happy.