UBC students’ research connects cattle’s physical activity with fertility

Research could eliminate need for hormone protocols

They might not move very fast, but PhD students at the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre say dairy cows reap huge fertility benefits from physical activity, and tracking their movements could change the way farmers approach breeding their herds.

Tracey Burnett is in the fourth year of her PhD studies, but came to the centre in 2009 as a herd hand during her undergraduate degree. The UBC student has been focusing on using automated activity monitors to measure dairy cows’ estrus-expression, or displays of fertility behaviour.

When the cows are about to ovulate, or “come into heat,” they have huge behavioural changes, Burnett said.

“They start walking a lot, mounting other cows… These monitors – similar to a FitBit – measure how much they usually move and compare it to previous days,” she said.

“When [the cow is] in heat, it will increase a lot. There will be an alert for the farmers and then they know when to inseminate the cows.”

Not only can a cow’s activity level indicate ovulation, but student research has shown that the more the cows move, the more fertile they become.

Now, using movement-tracking monitors, farmers can be more selective about which cows they breed, decreasing the risk of an embryo loss.

“Right now we’re super focused on asking ‘Why?’ ” Burnett said. “Why is there even this connection? But in the future, we’ve been talking about ways that we can get them to move around more – maybe having more solid surfaces for the floors [or] allowing them to go outside.”

PhD student Augusto Madureira’s research has many of the same goals as Burnett’s.

The Brazilian student has been studying factors affecting increased activity in the cows and looks at a specific protein associated with gestation to figure out just how that physical activity impacts embryo quality.

“A few studies we did in Brazil showed that you can predict pregnancy loss,” he said. “We [are] trying to see how, when the [cows’] physical activity changes, how it impacts those proteins. Animals that have high increases of activity – they are most likely to be pregnant. They also are more likely to not lose the embryo.”

Before their research, Burnett and Madureira say they didn’t know the full impact physical activity had on cow fertility.

“We thought that only the machines can detect [it], but when we see the big differences we [started] to ask, why?” Madureira said.

While the students are still focusing their research to look at the “why questions” rather than the “how,” Burnett said the findings could have huge implications for the way dairy farmers go about breeding their stock.

“Traditionally, farmers had to go into the barn and watch the cows for heat,” she said.

The time-consuming and, frankly, boring process of looking for signs of ovulation in cattle led farmers to use fertility treatments to instigate ovulation. But the treatments are an ongoing expense and still time-consuming on a large dairy farm, the students explained.

“Now that we have these monitors, we can come back to how we originally did it because it doesn’t take all this effort and work…like sitting in the barn,” Burnett said. “It’s still work but you’re able to get the same outcome by just looking at the behaviour of the animal, as others are [getting] by using fertility treatments.

“It’s very hard to get away from the fertility treatments but at least you don’t need to do it to 100 per cent of your cows.

“You can be very successful just looking at the natural behaviour of the cows.”

The Dairy Centre’s manager, Nelson Dinn, said the research is just some of the many studies contributing to progress in the dairy industry.

“Basically, it’s using technology to monitor natural behaviour for the benefit of the farm,” he said.

“And hopefully they get that published in a scientific journal somewhere, but the other important thing is that all of this research is for the benefit of the dairy industry across Canada, North America and around the world.”

“We are doing work in a very applied sense, so it can be adopted on dairy farms quite easily.

“Learning how animals learn, and what motivates cattle, we can take the information we learn here and apply it to how facilities are designed for the best interest of the animal.

“That’s how the dairy industry can move forward.”

The UBC Dairy Centre has been operating off Highway 7 in Agassiz since 1996 and is a western Canada leader in the study of animal welfare and reproduction.

Dinn said there are from 20 to 30 UBC students conducting research at the centre at any given time.

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