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New App Keeps Cows Cool and Profitable

July 19, 2013
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Released by the University of Missouri Office of Communications

COLUMBIA, Mo. - A new product that can help animal farmers reduce a billion dollar problem in heat-related losses was recently released by the University of Missouri.

ThermalAid is a smart phone app that monitors heat-related stresses on beef and dairy cattle and alerts farmers when there is a health problem. The app also recommends which intervention strategy will be most effective.

"Cows are like the rest of us," said Don Spiers, professor of animal science at Mizzou’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, and who led the team that developed the app. "They slow down in hot and humid weather. When stressed by too much heat, they stop eating, and thus fail to grain weight or produce milk."

Hot weather means big losses for farmers. "Each summer, the dairy industry loses $900 million nationally in productivity and the beef industry $400 million. And that’s data from 2003 when the industry was smaller and summers less intense," Spiers said.

The 99 cent app receives temperature and humidity data from the weather service according to the GPS location of the user. The farmer tells the app if it is beef or dairy cow, if it is in the barn or outside, if it is on the pasture or feed lot, its health status, and other information.

With that, the app calculates the animal’s Temperature Humidity Index, or the THI. If the THI is not stressful, the app shows green for that cow. If heat stress is an issue, the color goes to yellow and then orange. Red indicates a life-threatening condition.

The farmer can also measure each cow’s respiration rate, a good indicator of heat stress impact on the animal. A built-in timer can assist the user to record the respiration rate.

When farmers know that their animals are stressed, they can intervene with additional shade, fans or water misters to improve comfort and productivity. The app is tied to a MU database called ThermalNet, which provides additional climate and weather data, as well as tips to manage heat stress.

ThermalNet has the ability to allow farmers to communicate with experts at MU Animal Science.

ThermalAid took more than two years to develop. Spiers and his team are now working on an improved version called ThermalAid Pro. This app will automatically pull in ambient temperature and humidity data from sensors that the producer places at different locations on the farm site, thus increasing accuracy of the THI calculation. Future updates might include information from sensors placed on individual animals.

The upcoming app will create a regional database of heat stress information, giving farmers a new tool to combat losses, and scientists associated with the project will use the new information to develop better predictors of the impact of heat stress on animals.

"Ideally, we need temperature modules placed in different locations on the farm site that provide real-time readings and inputs — but that development is costly at present," Spiers said. The challenge is to make a cost-effective product that is reliable and durable in a field environment.

Spiers and the Thermal Aid team hope to attract potential business partners to develop and market the new app, and produce reasonably priced sensors.

Additional plans are to modify ThermalAid Pro in the future to track heat stress on other livestock like swine, sheep, goats and poultry, as well as horses and pets. The product may even be used in humans, in such cases as kids playing football in hot weather or in people with impaired health conditions.

"We know there’s a lot of interest in using ThermalAid for animals other than cattle, but that requires developing accurate heat stress equations for each animal type," Spiers noted. It will take time to gather the data and create those equations. We’re hopeful that industry or investors will partner with us to fund the work needed to generate equations for different breeds."

"The beauty of the app is that over time we’ll collect information from producers for a large database that will allow us to make even better predictions about how animals respond to heat not only in Missouri and the Midwest, but all over the country and around the world," said Spiers. "Eventually, a global network will be created between producers and heat stress specialists that will be able to provide specific site recommendations to alleviate the problem, and ultimately reduce cost to the producers and consumers.

Spiers has already worked with Mizzou’s licensing division, giving him a framework to collaborate quickly and professionally with investors.

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