Research by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) which measured cows’ behaviour by fitting them with high-tech ‘pedometers’ has won an international science award.
Now in their 23rd year, the Ig Nobel prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology. Prizes are awarded for research that ‘first makes people laugh, and then make them think’.
SRUC livestock researchers Bert Tolkamp, Marie Haskell, Fritha Langford, Colin Morgan and David Roberts won the Ig Nobel Probability prize for their paper ‘Are cows more likely to lie down the longer they stand?’.
The research involved the cows wearing non-invasive pedometer-like sensors on their legs that recorded their movements to develop a way to understand how their behaviour might reflect their state of health, helping farmers improve how they care for their herds.
By tracking beef and dairy cows’ activity, the researchers sought to analyse patterns in the time they spent lying and standing, with the theory that changes to these patterns could indicate a cow is ill or unhappy.
The team expected to find that, as the cows became increasingly tired due to standing, they would become more likely to lie down. In fact, they found cows that had been standing for six hours are as likely to lie down within the following 15 minutes as cows that had been standing for one hour. In addition, some cows spent much more time standing than others.
While the reasons for these variations are not clear, the project identified a scientific methodology for understanding patterns of activity. This is now being used by SRUC and others to assess how the way cows are cared for impacts on their health.
Speaking on behalf of the team, Dr Tolkamp said they were surprised but very pleased to receive the award. He said: “Anything that promotes interest in science is very welcome and we hope that winning the prize will give us additional opportunities to explain to other scientists, funding bodies and the public what we are doing and why it is worthwhile.
“As farms get bigger, there is less and less direct contact between farm workers and animals, which might mean later detection of problems. By shedding light on cow behaviour as an indicator of potential problems, our research is providing new opportunities to protect and improve cattle health and welfare.”
Dr Tolkamp travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, to be presented with the prize by a real Nobel laureate at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre. He made a 60 second acceptance speech and will later deliver a longer lecture about his work, attended by other Ig Nobel winners, fellow scientists and members of the public.
Dr Roberts attended the European Ig Nobel Night, on 14 September in Leiden, The Netherlands. He was congratulated on stage by other Ig Nobel winners and the acting Lord-Mayor of the City of Leiden and gave a short talk about the winning study.