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Fitbits for cows? Tracking collars aim to reveal bovine personalities

By Maja Burry and Simon Rogers for rnz.co.nz

It's hoped new research looking at the different grazing personalities of Hereford cows will help high country farmers better use their land.

Lincoln University PHD candidate Cristian Moreno is using GPS tracking collars to monitor the differences in how some cows in the same herd graze and to establish which genetic and environmental factors influence their behaviour.

Mr Moreno said while he was still in the early stages of analysing the five million GPS data points that he had collected, he'd already found some cows would tend to walk about 2km in a day, while others would more than double that.

"Some animals, they naturally prefer to stay in flat and gentle sloped places, others they choose to go somewhere up in the hill and they might graze more isolated," Mr Moreno said.

One of the collars that is providing interesting data for a Lincoln University study on Hereford cows. Source: RNZ / Simon Rogers

The study is being done on four different Canterbury farms, including Lees Valley Station in North Canterbury.

Farm manager Brandon Dalton, said long-term the research could be a game-changer, as having stock that liked to explore meant more feed could be utilised and the cows were eating a more varied diet.

"There's so many steep hills, steep brushy country, and we've had issues in the past with stock hanging at the bottom and we have to push them up every day, or if they're not doing well you just have to bring them down and there's only so much room on the flat.

"So [it's about] finding the right animals that can utilise that country," Mr Dalton said.

Mr Moreno's work is part of a wider project involving seven PHD researchers at Lincoln University, who are looking at how to provide more diverse diets and grazing environments for cattle, sheep and deer.

Professor Pablo Gregorini, who is supervising the students, said this would improve the well-being of the animals, while also having positive impacts on human health and the environment.

"These students are putting in a lot of hard work to help provide farmers with nutritional and grazing management tools to enhance their livestock's good lives as much as possible," he said.

"Pretty much eating those animals that have a healthier life, that live in a really rich environment, we are going to create health for ourselves."

Lincoln University PHD candidate Cristian Moreno attaches a tracking collar to a Hereford cow that is part of his study. Source: RNZ / Simon Rogers