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Have the cows hit the wall? Validation of contact mats for use in tie-stall

Studies have identified the frequency of collisions with housing equipment while lying down as a welfare problem, however little literature exists on the actual frequency of contact between dairy cows and the confines of their housing environment. Visual assessments of farm animals are costly and time intensive, making automated methods of data collection ideal for monitoring welfare problems. Contact mats (CM) are metal bands that produce an electrical signal in response to a pressure-generating contact force. These contact mats have been used for a variety of things, from keeping homes safe from burglars and to helping cities figure out how much traffic bike lanes get in order to improve transportation. Our lab sought to add one more use to them: to monitor the level of contact a cow has with her stall.

From left to right: Contact mat technology applied to door mats to detect when a person is at the door, placed under a paved bike path to measure bike traffic, and a view of what our contact mats look before installation. Photo sources (from left to right): ; ; Personal archive.

For every new technology used in research, however, we must first be sure that it works properly! Caroline Freinberg, a visiting student from Columbia University, joined by research assistant Athena Zambelis, spent a summer with us at the CowLife lab in 2018 to validate this existing technology for use in tie-stalls as a component of her B.Sc. honors thesis project. The objective of this study was to validate the ability of a CM system to monitor cow contact with stall dividers and neck rail when compared to visual observation.

Eleven lactating cows were monitored both visually and with the CM system for 4 h/d for 4 consecutive days (176 h of observation total) in a tie-stall housing system. Individual CM were affixed to the stall dividers and neck rail to record the frequency of cow contact per second, while two trained observers recorded the frequency of cow contact against the stall partitions on a per second basis using video recordings.

Picture by Caroline Freinberg depicting the different placements of the contact mats (CM1, CM2, and CM3) and the placements of the video cameras (C1-C4).

The results yielded a very high agreement between the CM system and visual observation for the ranked position of each cow based on divider contact. The CM system also demonstrated a consistent underestimation of cow contact with stall partitions, and so requires modification and further validation if to be used to record the exact number of contacts made by cows. Developing CM as a method to autonomously rank cow contact against the stall dividers could be a useful tool to help improve welfare, by identifying problematic stall configurations or individual cows that require housing intervention.

Contact mats on the tie-rail and dividers of the tie-stall during the tie-rail placement trial.

At the CowLife lab, we have already been putting this technology to use in our tie-stall studies. Recent M.Sc. grad, Jessica St John, used the CM system to see if different tie-rail placements affected the level of contact the cow made with her stall. You can find out more about this study, its treatments, and all the other results Jessica found. Her most restrictive tie-rail treatment, as determined through other outcome measures, also resulted in the highest contact with the dividers. On the other hand, cows in M.Sc. candidate Véronique Boyer’s study that were housed in tie-stalls that were double the recommended width had the lowest level of contact with the stall. The control cows, housed in stalls fitting current recommendations based on their body size, as set by the Dairy Code of Practice, ranked in between these two extremes for level of contact, suggesting that we may still have some considerations to make regarding our dairy cattle housing to improve ease of movement in the stall and reduce contact with stall partitions.


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