Students in Southeast Missouri State University's Department of Agriculture recently designed a portable misting system to provide late gestation cows at the David M. Barton Agriculture Research Center relief from the summer heat.
The idea was motivated by an incident in mid-July at the center when a cow gave birth three months early.
"She slipped her calf and it just couldn't make it being born premature that early," said Dr. Julie Weathers, Southeast assistant professor of agriculture. "It was hard on us and truly upset our cow."
When a cow is ready to give birth at nine months, its core body temperature rises a couple of degrees. Premature births can be the result of high outside temperatures raising the internal body heat of the cows.
"We really get some extreme heat temperatures during the summer," said Weathers. "When the cow's core body temperature goes up, the calf takes that as a sign that it's time to deliver."
The farm on average delivers one calf per cow between September and October, delivering up to 45 calves each fall. If they lose one or two calves, not only is it devastating for the cows but for the Center's bottom line.
"At 500 pounds each, in today's market if you lose one or two calves, it costs you roughly $2,400," said Collin Schabbing, farm manager at the Center.
Weathers and Schabbing teamed up with students who work at the Center to come up with a way to keep their cows cool and save calves.
Farms often have stationary misting systems to cool their livestock, but Jessica Stone, Lauren Casebolt of Scott City, Missouri; Kallie Turner of White Water, Missouri; and Matt Yuede of Cape Girardeau quickly realized this wasn't going to work for the Center.
"We originally thought about adding a misting system under our standing shades," said Stone, an animal science major. "But we use a rotational grazing system and move our cows every three to four days between 30 pastures."
A stationary misting system on their size farm could cause two major issues, including creating and endangering the cow's natural forage.
"Cows are creatures of habit and they remember things," said Weathers. "It's like if you put a sprinkler out for your kid, it's the same situation. If we have set up the system in the same place every time, they would come back to that location over and over again and destroy the pasture."
Coming up with a way to alleviate these problems was a challenge for the students.
"We hadn't seen a system like this before," said Stone. "We even Googled it, but everything we found was stationary. We had to come up with something new."
The final system is mounted on an eight-foot trailer with a custom built platform holding four 55-gallon tanks, which gravity feed water into two 65-gallon tanks located on the rear of the trailer's bed. The water is then pumped to four turbo fans.
"I'm really proud of it," said Stone. "We all had small ideas and put them together into one big one."
Having the system on a customized trailer allows Schabbing and students a controlled way to give the cows an opportunity to cool on the days they need it.
"Cows are pretty tough and can handle a lot, but this can be only used on the really bad hot days," said Schabbing.
Additionally, the portable system is the most efficient way to cool the cows as well as cost effective for the Center and the University.
"This is more affordable than putting hydrants or building more shade buildings in the fields," said Schabbing. "Misting for two hours reduces the cows" temperature 10 to 15 degrees, easy. It could even be higher depending on how much water we put out."
Having students that do not come directly from a farm background, are important for the department, said Weathers.
"They think outside of the box," said Weathers, who is impressed with their ingenuity and thinks they are an important part the agricultural field. "A lot of the time, we do something because our grandparents did it that way. "That doesn't make it wrong, but having new ideas keeps us up-to-date in an ever changing environment."
Stone, of Jonesboro, Illinois, grew up in a rural community but her parents were not farmers. She credits her inspiration to her dad who was a mechanic for 20 years.
"I learned a lot from him," said Stone, who has applied to Southeast's pre-professional veterinary program and wants to work as a large animal veterinarian in southeast Missouri. "I can bring this idea to farmers and help them save money and animals."
Her students" accomplishment is very exciting for the department, said Weathers.
"Entrepreneurship is a big thing for our department because a lot of our students go on to run their own businesses, and you have to have the management and problem-solving skills to succeed," she said.
Weathers and Schabbing hope to continue to make improvements and upgrades to the system as well as share the concept with local farmers and communities.
Dr. Chris McGowan, dean of the College of Science, Technology and Agriculture, said, "While sad, the loss of the calf became a learning opportunity."
The center anticipates 45 calves being born this fall.