Dairy farming is one of the most important industries globally for sustaining human life and maintaining nutrition and wellbeing for the human race. Unfortunately, the liaison between commercialism and science has rendered a devastating effect in regard to productivity and animal welfare. One of the most plaguing problems now facing the industry is that reproduction of dairy cattle is being grossly compromised to a point to where the dairy farming in Australia and the United States are losing 500 million and 1.5 billion dollars a year, respectively, due to poor husbandry practices. At the very core of this problem is the practice whereby genetic selection is based primarily on productivity parameters, in other words, the biggest volume producers are selected for breeding. However, the energy expenditure required to maintain this hyper-productive state puts the organism into negative energy balance and their ability to express oestrus or “heat” is grossly compromised. The expression of heat is important in that it tells the farmer when the cow is ready for mating. Timing is everything to ensure fertilization and optimize productivity but the cost of doing so is becoming a major burden on the industry world-wide. Furthermore, the impact that negative energy balance has on the general health and welfare of each animal has opened a genuine need to safely and effectively monitor each animal’s condition while they are serving the industry.
The second area of interest at the focus of our work is the importance of sensory cues that dairy cattle experience while they are subject to the process of mechanical milking. One does not have to work long in the dairy industry to see that the concrete and steel of a typical dairy are a far cry from the maternal process of milk ejection, yield and production that are at the very heart of calf feeding and propagation of the species. This begs the question as to precisely what the ideal sensory environment might be to approximate the maternal features of natural feeding. This brought us to test numerous auditory, visual, tactile, gustatory and olfactory signals that could be easily manipulated in any typical commercial dairy setting. Interestingly, with the implementation of cues that are not “bovine relevant” or species specific (We really must try to avoid playing Beethoven), little or no effect was seen. Conversely, implementation of stimuli that were chosen on the basis of the relevance to the repertoire of a dairy cow had potent effects on milk let down, milk ejection and long term production. Without a doubt, optimizing production by providing a sensory compatible environment within the context of relevance to the species is a vast improvement over the practice of daily injection of steroids such as somatotrophin (Posilac®). This further caters to the growing organic market worldwide and would provide dramatic improvement in the welfare of dairy cattle. Related work on colour vision, human contact and learning in this species has also added significantly to our knowledge on how to improve dairy environments and robotic design to reduce stress and optimise production for the industry.
Data produced during our projects dedicated to improving the dairy industry may be made available to interested parties upon application.