PLENTY a dairy farmer talks to the cows but avant-garde research being run by a young scientist with a passion for animal welfare could well give meaning to bovine responses.
Understanding dairy heifer vocalisations could provide farmers with a valuable tool for monitoring the welfare and condition of animals and tailoring everything from feeding to treatments to individual needs.
As much as that will provide production benefits, it will also go a long way to delivering increased consumer confidence in good animal welfare practices, according to University of Sydney dairy science group PhD candidate Alexandra Green.
“If we can work out what cows are saying we can show consumers their food products are coming from happy healthy animals,” she said.
Ms Green is working on a daily basis with 18 Holstein-Friesian heifers on a university farm near Camden in south west Sydney.
“I subject the girls to contexts where they are likely to be vocal, record that with a microphone in the field and then I will analyse it,” she said.
The idea is to map out the vocal repertoire of dairy cattle.
“Basically, I’m trying to work out what the cows are saying so we can act on that to improve farming,” she said.
There has been international research trying to develop technology to apply bioacoustic understanding on farm but it hadn’t gone as far as determining the message being conveyed, Ms Green said.
“I’m trying to take a step back and look at what exactly the cows are saying and how it links to what they are feeling,” she said.
“Herd sizes are increasing, the farmer population is aging and the dairy industry is becoming increasingly reliant on technology.
“So anything that looks at cow management at an objective, individual level is going to be of benefit in the future.”
While she is yet to begin the analysis, Ms Green’s initial observations are heralding some interesting findings.
Each cow has a unique voice, she said.
They are most likely to be vocal at certain times, such as when they are coming in heat or in anticipation of feed.
“Generally, dairy cows are a quiet animal as they are a prey species in the wild,” Ms Green explained.
“So we know it’s biologically important when they do vocalise.”
She has picked up vocal differences between stressful and less exciting situations and a positive and negative type of expression.
A range of heifer emotions, from anxiety and loneliness to frustration and the onset of oestrus, can be identified.
Just like humans, dairy heifers have distinct personality types - the introvert, the extrovert - and by identifying those differences in a herd, Ms Green believes farmers can deliver far more strategic management.
A city girl, she first studied animal and veterinary bioscience thinking she would work in the area of companion animals.
However, work placement in a feedlot and dairy gave her a fascination for cattle.
There had been strong industry interest in the work, she said, especially from the younger generation of producers who see big benefits in utilising behaviour knowledge to monitor cattle.