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August 4, 2021

In a low-tech environment, team develops sophisticated solution for keeping dairy cows cool

Written By: Webmanager

Recent heat waves have been tough on everything including people, shellfish, forests and crops. One casualty of the heat that doesn’t get much attention, however, is dairy cows.

Heat stress is a major threat to the bovines, which are particularly sensitive to hot weather because they have an average body temperature of 101.5 degrees. On hot days, farmers put the cows in the shade or barn, spritz them with water and blast them with fans, using a lot of water and electricity in the process. Even still, heat stress, which can reduce milk production and fertility, costs dairy farmers about $1.5 billion per year in the U.S. and causes lots of animal suffering.

 Younghyun Kim
Younghyun Kim

As climate change continues to lead to more (and more extreme) heat waves, the bovine climate control problem is only expected to get worse. That’s why Younghyun Kim, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an interdisciplinary research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are investigating cutting-edge technologies to keep Bessie and her sisters from suffering unnecessary heat stress.

Kim is the lead principal investigator on a new three-year, $1-million project funded by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture that will develop cyber-physical systems to maintain optimal microclimates inside barns and mitigate the impact of heat stress on dairy cows.

“Advances in machine learning and the Internet-of-Things have made it possible to understand and manage not only the digital world but also living animals,” Kim says. “We want to answer the question of how we can promote productivity, sustainability and animal welfare in dairy farms using technologies. Wisconsin is the best place to investigate this research question and make the biggest impact with the best experts as a team.”

Researchers from across UW-Madison are collaborating on the project. Among them are Christopher Choi, a professor of biological systems engineering; Jennifer Van Os, an assistant professor and extension specialist in animal and dairy sciences; and Sabrina Brounts, a clinical professor in the Department of Surgical Sciences in the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.

Most of the large-scale, freestall barns currently preferred by the dairy industry are not particularly high tech and do not rely on advanced sensing technology to tell when animals are stressed. The aim of the new project is to develop external sensors and sensors implanted in the cows that can continuously monitor their microenvironment and physiological stress using thermal-induced behavior analysis and computational fluid dynamics-based microclimate control.

The data will allow analysis of heat-stress in real time, leading to automatic adjustments to barn cooling systems using a minimum amount of energy and water. The goal is to keep the cows cool, comfortable and productive; to improve the economics of the dairy business; and also increase sustainability and animal well-being.

“Animal health and well-being is an important factor for not only the dairy farmer in Wisconsin, but also dairy farming in other states and countries,” says Brounts. “Therefore our sensing technology could potentially have a broad impact on animal health and farmers all over the world.”

The team will spend the first part of the project developing the sensors and controllers before testing the system at UW-Madison’s dairy barns, experimenting with different housing and ventilation systems. If it works with cows, the cyber-physical system may be applicable to poultry and pork production facilities as well.

The new system won’t just be good for animals; it will also help farmers save money and provide new jobs in agriculture technology. “Because this proposed system would require builders with specialized knowledge based on the proposed research activities particularly in the areas of advanced IoT-based sensors and corresponding microclimate control, it should create opportunities for Wisconsin’s builders specializing in dairy barn design, construction, and operation,” says Choi.