July 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Ellen McNally (23 January 2024)

Could humans soon start communicating with cows or would it all just go in one ear and out the udder? Corny jokes aside, understanding what cows are ‘telling’ us might soon be coming to fruition!

Researchers from Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are using acoustic data and machine learning to decipher the noises cows make to enhance animal welfare and help combat global warming.

Cows are some of the most vocal animals on the planet. But what exactly is a cow trying to tell us when it moos? James Chen, an animal data sciences researcher, and his team are aiming to answer this exact question, by cataloguing the vocalisation of cows.

Chen told Virginia Tech News, “Vocalisation is a major way cows express their emotions, and it is about time to listen to what they’re telling us”.

Chen and his co-investigator, Associate Professor Gonzalo Ferreira, plan to place small recording devices on the halters or collars of cows, their calves, and beef cattle in the pasture. The researchers will then analyse the amplitude, frequency, and duration of the sounds produced, alongside collecting saliva samples, and observing visual cues. Machine learning will then be used to catalogue and analyse all this data to identify signs of stress or illness.

The researchers hope this data can help shed light on the cows’ health to improve animal welfare in livestock farming. However, they hope this data could also tackle the negative effects livestock farming has on the environment.

While digesting their high-fibre diet, cows emit methane via their burps, a potent greenhouse gas. These greenhouse gases present in the Earth’s atmosphere trap heat, helping contribute to the Earth’s rising temperatures. This makes cows one of the least climate-friendly sources of food on the planet.

Researchers hope they can identify cows that burp less through this audio data and whether there may be a genetic variant that causes some cows to burp more than others. This could then help inform potential selective breeding programs on farms.

“Measuring methane emissions from cattle requires very expensive equipment, which would be prohibitive to farmers”, Ferreira said. “If burping sounds are indeed related to methane emissions, then we might have the potential for selecting low methane-emitting animals at the commercial farm level in an affordable manner”.

If successful, the research could have a huge global impact on both animal welfare and the environment, with Chen stating, “We hope to build a public data set that can help inform policy and regulations”.