Do Cows Count Their Steps?

Miriam Martin

2019-2022 FFAR Fellow

Kansas State University

Have you ever wondered what your dog or cat does when you’re not around? Our team at Kansas State University has the same question, but we wonder about cows. Unlike nanny-cams, which might work well to see if your new puppy is doing okay, cattle have evolved to stoically conceal when they aren’t feeling well in order to avoid predation. Precision animal monitoring technologies (think of a super-charged Fitbit) allow us to collect data on how animals are spending every second of their day. This unlocks a wealth of information about their behavior such as rumination and activity – yes, how many steps they are getting in – and can help us better monitor their health and well-being.

Already a Step Behind

By the time an animal exhibits clinical signs of illness, such as an elevated body temperature or visible manifestations of pain, we find ourselves already a step behind in caring for them as we should. Precision animal monitoring allows us to collect data that could tell us an animal needs attention long before they show clinical signs of illness. Yet with new information continuously being generated, this large amount of data can quickly become overwhelming. Acting on what we’ve collected means first transforming this big data into quantifiable and meaningful information.


Calves wearing accelerometers which measure daily activity who are a part of a collaborative research trial between Colorado State University and Kansas State University

What We Can Measure 

The livestock industry currently has access to technology that can track body temperature, rumination, feed and water intake, daily activity, and pen location, with advancements in technologies that quantify electrodermal activity, or changes in sweat gland activity, as well as bodyweight distribution and stride length. The industry is beginning to integrate this information into sophisticated platforms and, with the addition of facial recognition technology — yes, for cows! — data could be collected from animals over long periods of time and move with them throughout their lifetimes. By correlating these outcomes and creating predictive algorithms, we can identify sick animals before they begin to show clinical signs of illness, monitor whether animals are responding to treatment, and forego moving an animal into a handling facility to complete a physical exam. All of these applications can improve animal well-being and lower cost and risk for ranchers.

Where We Are Going

Here at Kansas State University, our team is exploring other indicators of when an animal is beginning to deviate from its physiologic norm. Yet quantifying outcomes in research settings is only the beginning of a journey that can ultimately lead to on-the-ground solutions that are practical and economical for the commercial livestock industry. That being said, precision animal monitoring is going to quickly become the new norm – allowing us to see the consequences of treatment decisions long after they are made, collect large amounts of data that can be used to analyze trends and make protocol changes and treat animals as individuals with a history that we can use to determine the best route of action to promote their health and well-being every day. 

This work is made possible, in part, by FFAR and Merck Animal Health. The opportunity to be a part of the 2019-2022 cohort of FFAR Fellows is both an honor and a responsibility. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research is providing the resources and opportunities to make science accessible, meaningful, and impactful; being a part of that greater purpose is something I will carry with me throughout my scientific endeavors.  


A calf at Kansas State University receiving a tag that measures rumination and daily activity
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