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It’s easy to tell that Elsie, the cartoon cow mascot for Borden Dairy Company, is happy. She’s got a big bovine grin on her face.

But real cows don’t smile, so Marcia Endres has to find other ways to figure out what makes a cow contented.

Endres, a University of Minnesota animal science professor and Extension dairy specialist, studies dairy cows and their well-being because comfortable cows produce more milk.

It’s also the right thing to do, says Endres, the incoming president of the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council. “A cow is such a nice animal, so tame and so easy to work with,” Endres says.

As Endres researches the effects of different bedding options or barn ventilation systems, she and her graduate students look for clues to see if a cow is healthy and comfortable. They count leg lesions, look for signs of lameness, see whether the cows are grooming or pushing at each other and test manure for stress hormones.

Among the things that make cows contented, the research shows, are clean, well-grooved barn floors that reduce the chances of falls, and sleeping on a thick layer of sand.

“Sand is very cushy,” Endres says. “Cows like that.”

Lately, Endres has been researching the effectiveness of robots in dairy farming, automation including robotic milking, automated calf feeding machines, feed pusher robots and Roomba-like manure scraping robots.

Robotic milkers could make both cows and farmers happier, since it’s a self-service type of system. Cows get to decide when they are milked — on their schedule, not the farmer’s. And that gives the farmer more family time and flexibility for other chores.

Endres also uses some high-tech tools in her research, including what she describes as Fitbits for cows. These devices hang around the cow’s neck or attach to the ear, and measure temperature or how much time a cow spends ruminating.

Endres, who has been with the U for 16 years, is originally from Brazil, where her grandparents kept cows and where she got a veterinary medicine degree. She eventually earned her doctoral degree at the U.

For her research, Endres has collaborated with 300 to 400 dairy farms in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota. Farmers like to participate because they get insights about their cows and how their operations compare to others. Endres has found that farmers will do things like install automated machines that allow their cows to brush their own coats. The machines may not improve the bottom line, but the cows really like them.

“They want the animals to be comfortable because they care about the cows,” she says.— Richard Chin