Cows are ‘relaxed animals’ and ‘much more interesting to study than horses’

Cows are ‘relaxed animals’ and ‘much more interesting to study than horses’

Lying cows are happy cows. Especially if they chew the cud peacefully and produce a lot of milk. Josje Scheurwater (39) should know. She spent months in the cowshed of the faculty of veterinary medicine at Utrecht University. She knew the animals – to which she attached a sensor around their leg and neck – inside and out. So good, in fact, that she later recognized exactly from which cow it came from the data on her computer screen. “Lie down three times a night? There can only be one.”

Scheurwater investigated cow happiness. To learn more about what exactly that is, she used sensors that dairy farmers attach to a cow to measure whether she is fertile and when she gives birth. But the same sensors also measure behavior: standing, lying, walking, ruminating and eating.

After seven years of PhD research, Scheurwater concludes: by making smart use of sensors we can learn a lot about what healthy and happy cows are. For example, cows appear not to be happy with warmth, nor with changing group compositions.

The animals are even less able to withstand heat than scientists thought for a long time. The consensus was that at twenty degrees they would suffer from heat stress. But Scheurwater showed that it is already too hot for Dutch cows. Behavioral adjustment starts at twelve degrees. They lie less and stand more, a sign that they are trying to lose their heat. “With global warming, heat stress in animals is becoming a bigger problem. Less happy cows also means less milk. It is therefore important for dairy farmers to ensure that their cows do not get too hot.”

Something else struck her from the conversations Scheurwater had with dairy farmers during her research: they struggle with the so-called ‘regrouping’ of their animals. Before pregnant cows give birth, they are separated from the group of lactating cows. They will be replaced later. One dairy farmer does this per individual cow, the other per duo or three, but in any case, this shifting causes unrest within the group. “We already knew from research that this applies to the cow that is added,” says Scheurwater, “but I show that the group also suffers from this. For example, the milk production of the entire group is decreasing.”

The sensor was ‘not suitable at all’

In its original plan, Scheurwater would work with a new, advanced internal cow sensor. But when she first placed the sensor in a container with liquid from the cow’s stomach to be on the safe side, the device turned out to be unable to withstand this.

For a moment, the entire PhD process seemed to fall apart. “Then I started doing my research with existing sensors around the neck and legs. And in the meantime, an electrical engineer friend has started building a smart sensor himself. In the end we succeeded.” The cow can swallow the cylindrical capsule of approximately ten centimeters, after which it continuously measures the pressure and temperature in the reticulum. “Hopefully farmers can also use it in the future.”

Tearwater visibly revives as soon as she starts talking about data and measurements. She is not your average veterinarian who wanted to work with pets or horses from an early age. Although she runs her own mobile horse clinic, she is also a mathematician. That is why she decided to start studying technical mathematics in Delft after veterinary medicine. “My dream has always been to combine those two fields.”

She could also easily have written her research results in an Excel file. “But I used it to challenge myself as much as possible.” Scheurwater learned the programming languages ​​R and Python, built databases and algorithms himself and experimented with machine learning, in the hope of discovering patterns in her data that she could not see with the naked eye. “That is why I find cows so much more interesting to research than horses: they are kept in larger groups. That means key figures, figures, statistics!”

Happy with a trip to the cows

Although she works with horses day and night, she was happy to take a trip to the cows in this research. “I feel at home in the cowshed. Horses get restless easily, but cows are relaxed animals.”

Scheurwater conducted PhD research four days a week, in addition to her job as a veterinarian and as the mother of a young family whose father also runs his own veterinary clinic. For years, she got into the car at six in the morning – before the traffic jams – for her research. Her vet rounds started at two in the afternoon and continued into the evening. Getting out of bed in the middle of the night for a sick horse or a birth? She doesn’t turn a blind eye to it.

Scheurwater obtained her PhD on a very popular topic, she noticed shortly after the faculty sent out a press release about her PhD research. Agricultural trade magazines, daily newspapers, radio stations and TV channels were on the phone. She cleared her agenda for a week to speak to the press, but that turned out not to be enough. Even on the day she was promoted, the phone was ringing off the hook.

“I was sitting in the hairdresser’s chair getting my hair done for the ceremony and had already pushed Hilversum away a few times. I really didn’t have time. But they kept calling,” says Scheurwater. “On the way to the promotion, I just stood in my car on the side of the road. Quickly dial in for ten minutes to the radio. Apparently, after all the negative news about livestock, people are ready for some positive news about cows.”