When dealing with the nitty-gritty, mud-caked reality of animal health and production agriculture every day, it can help to take a step back to get a new perspective on ongoing issues.
With that in mind, Bayer Animal Health associate researcher for clinical efficacy Douglas Shane reached out to professor Greg Thomas and his students in the Center for Design Research (CDR) in the University of Kansas School of Architecture & Design to see what ideas they might come up with to improve the detection and diagnosis of bovine respiratory disease (BRD) in cattle, according to an announcement from the University of Kansas.
“We believe that receiving input, innovation and ingenuity from these kinds of students may help us think of things we never would’ve dreamed of before,” Shane said. “They come up with ideas, and then we bring in our practical knowledge.”
He added that for one of Bayer’s “flagship products,” an antibiotic treatment for BRD, diagnostics and treatment protocols can be a challenge in feedlot settings.
“Even as vets, it is challenging to accurately identify which cattle are and are not sick and which of them need and do not need treatment,” Shane said.
So, feedlot operators in western Kansas and around the country employ pen riders who look for the telltale behaviors of cattle with BRD or other illnesses — like standing apart from the rest of the herd, Thomas said.
According to this protocol, suspect cattle are pulled from the herd to a handling facility, where they are safely examined to determine if they should receive treatment or not.
“When they get into the chute, it can still be dangerous to examine an animal,” Thomas said. “How do you put your hand in the chute with a diagnostic device and get it in the right position to perform a scan or evaluation?”
Shane and Thomas said the challenge to the CDR students was to apply technology to improve this process using pre-existing equipment.
First, Shane arranged a field trip in February to visit research farms at Kansas State University and a nearby commercial feedlot to watch the systems in action.
“It was a personal goal of mine to get students with little to no background in agriculture into the production agriculture environment,” Shane said. “This enhanced their understanding of feedlot production and gave them exposure to the challenges these producers face every day.”
Thomas said the students responded to both the task and the trip with enthusiasm.
“The charge was to design a better chute-side diagnostic machine using pre-existing technology,” Thomas said. “We wanted to take a more aggressive role in thinking how we can keep the [cattle] healthy.”
After Thomas tailored a couple of their ideas for improvements further back in the supply chain — during shipment and at the feedlot — the students have worked on Shane’s explicit charge to improve chute-side tools. The students have been iterating nine different ideas for that, Thomas said, including some that extend the device into the chute on a pole or wand.
“The problem is not just the ability to examine and scan the animal,” Thomas said. “The cows have heavy, muddy fur, and you have to get past all that, either by spreading out the hair and spraying them with alcohol or by shaving a spot, as they do now. We have worked to incorporate both processes into our device. ... Some resemble a power washer. Then, you spin it around, and the probe is on the other side. They are all ergonomically better and safer for the ranch hand.”