HOW often do cows hang out with their mates?
Kym Patison is searching for the answer to this question.
Growing up on a dairy farm in Victoria, Kym loved being at home dealing with the animals.
She always did her best to ensure the cattle were happy.
She said it was something she was drawn to.
Now the CQUniversity fellow is putting her passion to good use with a research program into the socialisation of cattle around the central Queensland area.
Landing a $20,000 grant through CSIRO Health and Biosecurity, Kym aims to develop and design an on-farm welfare monitoring system through the use of proximity loggers.
The logger is designed to record when two animals come within close proximity of each other, which is about a body length away.
It will record details such as what date the animals contacted, the time and exactly how long for.
This new research project comes after previous studies on the friendship groups between animals, which showed there were certain animals who spent a lot of time together.
"They might rest together, they might graze together and generally hang out,” Kym said.
"There are others in the group that only contact each other a bit. They still keep in contact but they're not best buddies.
"We looked at differences between familiar animals, who will contact each other more than unfamiliar animals. A cow and a calf have the most amount of contact compared to other cattle.”
Kym is interested in applying all of the research they gathered in a welfare context, so if there is something wrong with the animal or the environment it can be picked up in the animals' social patterns.
"It's using the animal as its own sensor rather than saying 'okay there's an empty trough or a dog in the paddock'. The animal can sense both that as well as its own sickness,” she said.
"If they are sick they're not going to feel like chatting to their friends as much. But if there is a dog in the paddock, because they're a flight or fight animal, they are going to bunch together to protect each other.
"You will be able to pick that up through this system.
"At the moment it's more of a research tool but the way technology is developing and the programs that we've got in place here at CQU, there's going to be one day that comes where it's going to be a live feed of information straight from your paddock back to an app on your phone that might send an alert saying 'hey there isn't something right with cow 1, 2, 3' or 'all of the animals are behaving differently, you might need to go check what's going on'.”
Kym said she was quite passionate about animal welfare and could see opportunities in the market for a tool like this.
"If the animals are being monitored or looked after in a better way, then that way the farmers have happy cows and they are going to produce more, so it is a win-win situation for them as well,” she said.
"I'm from a dairy farm in Victoria. So farmers are seeing them twice a day, if not more, when they are feeding them. They get to know the animal's personality and what's going on with them. So if there is something wrong they're going to pick it up straight away.
"Whereas here there's just not that opportunity, which is where technology is a great way to bridge that gap and to say 'okay I can't physically get out there to check my animals every day, here is a way you can do it'.”
With the research aiming to monitor their social behaviours and welfare, Kym said the tool could also be applied in a welfare scheme situation.
The RSPCA already has schemes established for chickens, pork and other animals but nothing was in place for the beef industry.
"This is a way through a welfare scheme you can say, we've ticked all the boxes, they've been monitored some way every day. So there are market opportunities for farmers who want to use this technology and say 'well I can prove to the consumer that my animals have been looked after',” Kym said.
"Consumers are really interested in knowing where their meat comes from, that it has been produced in a welfare manner so it's a way of ticking those boxes.”
Kym's sponsor, CSIRO, was most interested in the research from a biosecurity aspect.
"If one animal is sick and it's a notifiable disease, you can look back and say who should we contact, how can we intervene.”
Working on the project, Kym said there were many potential outcomes from the research and was excited to see how it could be further used in the future.
"You get to work with these beautiful animals every day,” she said. "I love what I do, I love each day.”