Range cattle spend most of their time grazing, ruminating, resting and watering. Using collars fitted with GPS and accelerometers, technology similar to that found in a Fitbit that collects data on movement patterns, University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers are tracking the movements and behavioral patterns of beef cattle and how they link to efficient beef production systems.
Mitchell Stephenson, Nebraska Extension range and forage management specialist at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff, said he and other researchers involved in the project were looking at how specific behaviors exhibited by cattle translated to an animal's traits.
"When you look at the behaviors, you can link them together," Stephenson says. "Looking at production efficiency, milk production and behavioral characteristics are really what make this study unique."
Lead researcher Travis Mulliniks, a range cow production systems specialist at the West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, said understanding the relationships between cattle traits and behaviors could be used to better understand how milking ability influences cow-calf relationships and ultimately increase producer profitability and efficiency.
He and Stephenson are working with Samodha Fernando, a rumen microbiologist in UNL's Department of Animal Science, to use technology to better understand those links between traits and behaviors.
The trio received a three-year, $299,999 USDA Critical Agricultural Research and Extension grant this spring to evaluate the impact of milk production on cow-calf productivity, grazing behavior and profitability at the university's Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory, a nearly 13,000-acre research facility in Grant, Hooker and Cherry counties.
"This is the only study that I know of, ever, that is using this technology and looking at cattle in this way," Mulliniks said.
The grant will allow Mulliniks and his team to study the complexities of the cow's milk production on its calf's performance and behavior. For example, if a cow produces a lot of milk, the team will analyze whether its calf spends more time milking or grazing — and if the grazing preference may be tied into average daily gain.
The team is tracking the movement of 30 cows and calves using a GPS collar and accelerometers. The researchers are able to evaluate the influence of a cow's milk ability, measured by periodic milking of the cows using a milk machine, on suckling and grazing behaviors of calves. This then will be tied into production characteristics such as weaning weight.
Selby Boerman, a graduate student working on the project, milks each beef cow five times during the lactation period. She records the amount of milk produced over 24 hours and analyzes the fat and protein content, which could play a big role in the production characteristics of cows.
Boerman also monitors the cow-calf pairs and records the time the calves spend nursing. Her visual observations help refine the accelerometer algorithms to nail down the unique signature of each animal to exactly when they are nursing.
Another aspect of the study involves taking fecal samples from the cows and calves, which researchers analyze to see which grasses and forbs the cows and calves consume over the growing season.
"Basically, we can reconstruct their diet, even to the general idea of some percentages of different species in their diet, based on what we see in the fecal matter," Stephenson said.
The reconstructed diet allows the team to study the crossover in diet between cows and calves and take note of how their diet changes throughout the growing season.
In gathering a tremendous amount of data daily, the team is focused on ways that precision livestock management can add value for a producer.
"Our technology collects the data, and we can see changes in behavior over time," Stephenson says.
"Getting this data in real time is where the technology is going and will aid producers in making decisions at the individual animal level — this is precision livestock management."
Mulliniks, too, is focused on the potential benefit of the technology for producers.
"It's not as simple as range science or animal nutrition; it is very complex," he says. "That's why you can't necessarily tease apart some of these projects and why we look at it as an integrated system."
Jones is a media specialist at IANR Media.