HerdDogg helps researchers combat pests at the University of Wyoming

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Research objectives

  • The University of Wyoming is initiating a study aimed at determining an integrated pest management strategy for the management of horn flies on cattle. 
  • Led by Dr. J. Derek Scasta, the study aims to understand how these pests change a cow’s behavior, in terms of its movement around the ranch and its physical gestures as it tries to shed and deter these painful parasites.
  • HerdDogg’s animal-tracking capabilities as well as the accelerometer in the DoggTags provide continuous logging of each animal’s physical reaction to the horn flies. Data from each animal is automatically transmitted to the DoggBone reader or a mobile phone and pushed to individual animal records in the HerdDogg Animal Record Collection or “ARC.”
  • Dr. Scasta’s team has unfettered access to the ARC, providing them with volumes of  near-real-time animal data that can be analyzed and correlated with high-resolution photos to better understand how fly pressure shapes each animal’s activities.
  • Down the road, the team hopes to use this information to understand how cattle deal with the physical annoyance of biting flies and identify animals that may be more resistant

Swatting back the files with Dr. Scasta

The mission of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at University of Wyoming is to be the proactive leader in education and scholarship to cultivate healthy, sustainable systems for Wyoming’s agriculture, environment and natural resources, and rural communities. Attached to the university is the Agricultural Experiment Station (AES), which comprises four locations (Laramie, Lingle, Powell, and Sheridan) and serves as a hub for a wide variety of ongoing research studies.

One of the AES facilities is the Laramie Research and Extension Center (LREC). It consists of a Beef Unit, Swine Unit, Sheep Unit, the UW Research Greenhouse, McGuire Ranch, and Lab Animal facilities. Ongoing research here has been studying how horn flies parasitize different breed and types of bovines and why some are more susceptible than others. The study is led by Dr. J. Derek Scasta, whose research includes several studies of animal behavior and its interactions with the natural environment and has been in collaboration with entomologists in his department.

Under the microscope right now is Haematobia irritans, one of the most economically important pests of cattle worldwide. Better known as the horn fly, and about half the size of a common housefly, this parasite is equipped with a piercing proboscis capable of penetrating cattle hide for the purpose of feeding on the cow’s blood.

We sat down with Dr. Scasta to learn more about how animal data might help him to develop a weapon to combat a cow’s battle with horn flies.

What studies are currently underway at the LREC?

We have a diverse cohort of faculty doing innovative research.  Some of our animal science faculty are looking at nutrition and how nutrition influences things like calving. Another is looking at the microbiome of the reproductive tract to understand how a calf acquires that microbiome. Another team is studying cattle feed efficiency and ram performance at some of our feeding facilities. My area of study is how stress affects an animal’s performance across, for example environmental stress during a drought. And then there’s the study that involves HerdDogg: how parasitic stress changes a cow’s behavior.

Tell us about these parasites

So these are primarily called horn flies. They’re greatly irritating to cattle and are the most economically damaging parasite to cattle in the US. They feed on the blood of the animals and their bites are very irritating. As they’re attacked by these flies, an animal’s behavior changes: they shake and swing their head, swish their tail, kick their legs, and then shake their hide — the panniculus reflex.

Collectively, we call all these annoyance avoidance behaviors, and of course they have a negative impact on the animal’s productivity. The flies are typically biting them when they’re grazing, which means the grazing time goes down with associated production consequences. Weight gains can be reduced. Calf weaning weights can be reduced. Milk production of lactating females can decrease. These flies can also transmit pathogens such as the bacterium for bovine mastitis.

For cattle producers, this fly is an expensive pest and over the years various approaches have been devised to combat it. We’re trying to find a better integrated pest management (IPM) approach that builds on understanding individual animals and their environment.

Dr. Scasta uses the HerdDogg app to scan a QR code prior to tagging an animal with a Bluetooth DoggTag sensor.

How can HerdDogg’s technology help with this study?

First, we believe that using wearable technology to capture data in real time will be a massive improvement over previous research. A lot of the early studies on this were  just observational work. Someone would follow infested animals around and record how many times an animal was shaking its head, kicking its feet, swishing its tails, and so on — versus with its head down grazing. We’ll be able to capture much more accurate and robust data about each animal’s behavior over the course of the day, no matter where it is on the ranch.

Talk to us about some of the hypotheses of your study

One aspect is seasonality. These flies are not really an issue during the winter, it’s in the summer that the problem grows, as you would expect. And it really escalates in the warmer months, July and August, and also during those months with the longest days. We know the pest cycles are influenced both by temperature, but also day length.

One key focus area for the study is how biting flies influences activity budgets particularly the annoyance behaviors and time not spent grazing or ruminating.

What do we know about what attracts the files to the animals?

We conducted earlier research on this and there are some lingering questions about that we hope to address. Here on the ranch we have predominantly black-hided cattle. So we know that hide color can influence pest infestation. We published a paper on co-mingled black and white cows here in Wyoming, and the black cattle always had higher levels of horn flies. We think that’s probably because of the thermal aspects—we’re a very cold environment, where those black-hided cattle just feel warmer. Will this relationship between hide color and pests change in a hotter climate? That’s something we’d like to understand.

We also know that sex is a factor; bulls will typically have even higher infestations probably related to things like hormones, their emissions, respiration rates, and things like that. We’re also thinking that the density of an animal’s hair is a factor. So Brahman type cattle have a higher follicle density, and that can serve as a mechanism to reduce their susceptibility to flies. And then there’s some questions that I have about blood, because these are blood-feeding parasites, so is there a coagulation metric? Or does the blood type have any effect on the flies?

Tell us about the data that the HerdDogg platform is providing

When HerdDogg first approached us we took a look and said: “Well, this platform seems great for a rancher, who just needs a basic set of automatically generated graphs of the data. We’ll need access to the underlying data — what can you give us?” Say, daily activity, temperature these animals are exposed to, when and where. 

So HerdDogg set me up with a research profile that gives us access to the raw data. And I think this is where the partnership between the University of Wyoming and HerdDogg is really exciting because, you know, there’s a lot of additional questions that could be asked about this data. For example, some of these biometric indicators that the platform provides for each animal, are they an indicator of sickness or lameness? Or could they be an indicator of, let’s say, parasite loads? Could they be an indicator that an animal that is intrinsically motivated to move and graze more and it has better performance? 

There’s a lot we don’t know. So there’s a lot of opportunities.There’s a lot of data analysis and interpretation that we’ll be able to perform on the captured data. And then we can combine this with other observations. What was their starting weight? What was their ending weight? Did they have higher, lower infestations? Were they calving and lactating? What was their production stage? 

Certainly, HerdDogg is doing some of that work, but I think we have the facilities and animals to also think about some of those questions and go deep into specific areas. We’re very interested in these sorts of partnerships and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit at the university. By working with industry we can provide products that help ranchers. 

It’s also really encouraging to see the precision technology revolution coming to livestock. This has already transformed farming but it has taken longer to transform ranching. Ranching is more extensive, it’s lower input. And so what are those little indicators that help ranchers make decisions? I think by partnering, you know, hopefully we can find some of those things.

What do you particularly like about the HerdDogg system?

I was really blown away by the smartphone interface, where we use these QR codes to pair up a tag with an animal. All from your phone. Believe me, when you’re actually standing among the cattle working facilities, trying to put tags on animals, you know, and do all the animal handling stuff, this needs to be super simple. HerdDogg has made this as efficient as it could be. It’s really great. 

The app is also cool — I’ve got these premises and then the herds. And so I can go in and look at each of those individual animals and I download a CSV Excel file or a text file which gives me all the data for that animal, with a timestamp. Okay! And so next I can find individual animals and pull them, and then I aggregate those. With this data, we can start to ask specific questions. Sure, there are things we can do to improve our workflow; we’re looking to streamline how data gets aggregated across animals. I have some ideas about that, and HerdDogg is working on giving me what I need.

What are observations have you already made with this data? 

One of the things we asked was, well, just what is the daily pattern for these cattle? How much time does a cow spend doing different things? Already, we’re seeing periods of high and low activity. In the pre-dawn hours, those cattle have a time of activity — they’re probably up grazing. Then, around sunrise, they bed down. Then, in the early morning, they’ll again get up and have a period of activity. And then during the heat of the day, they’ll lay down again. They’re probably ruminating. By afternoon and early evening, there’s another period of activity.

So what does that mean? Well, we can look over time and say, okay, let’s look at some temperature swings, like cold and hot days and see how that influences movement.  We were able to very clearly see these daily patterns over a six-day period for these cows in extensive landscapes. We have the activity data, and when we overlay temperature during that midday resting period where they’re not that active—well, that’s the hottest part of the day. Makes sense.

But also there’s a discussion about understanding each cow’s activity and that’s another thing we looked at. So defined different sets of heifers and then ranked those heifers by their activity. And then I looked to see if the most active heifer stayed the most active for the following days. And it did. I don’t know why that is. Is that just an individual that’s motivated to be more active or is that an individual that has a lot of flies bothering it? 

There is some evidence in other literature that some cows are more motivated to move. Go further away from water, go up steeper slopes than others. And this might help inform some of that. It might even be a more affordable way to identify those animals. And then there’s a lot of additional things that could happen. The data is already revealing some exciting findings, and we’re really just getting started.

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