Painting cows with zebra stripes could save the cattle industry millions, study says

No, scientists are not unveiling a new cow-zebra crossbreed, but they are painting cattle with stripes.

According to a new study published in peer-review journal PLOS ONE, painting cows with zebra-like stripes drastically reduces the number of biting flies unleashing their fury on livestock.

What did researchers do?

Researchers used six pregnant Japanese Black cows, three in a 2017 session and three in 2018, the report says. For each nine-day session, researchers painted one cow with white stripes and one with black stripes while leaving one unpainted, the study says.

The stripes of water-based paint (or lack thereof) were left on for three days before researchers changed it up, ensuring each of the session’s three cows had donned both white and black stripes as well as no stripes at all.

What did researchers find?

On the cows painted with white stripes, researchers counted half as many flies as solid-colored cows or cows painted with black stripes, the study says.

Researchers also observed what the study calls “fly-repelling behaviors,” instances where the cows threw their heads, beat their ears, stamped their legs, twitched their skin, and flicked their tails. Cows painted with white paint exhibited 20 percent fewer instances of fly-repelling behaviors, the study says.

Previous studies have suggested that flies favor landing on solid colors because patterns, such as zebra stripes, confuse “insect motion detection systems that control their approach and landing,” researchers say.

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Tomoki Kojima, Kazato Oishi, Yasushi Matsubara, Yuki Uchiyama, Yoshihiko Fukushima, Naoto Aoki, Say Sato, Tatsuaki Masuda

Why does it matter?

According to a USDA study published in 2012, biting flies are one of the most damaging pests to cattle in the world and are responsible for a yearly $2.21 million economic impact on cattle production in the U.S.

Dairy cattle produce less milk when pestered by flies, the study says, while cattle being raised for slaughter gain less weight.

Historically, cattle owners have used insecticides to keep flies at bay, but flies have evolved to resist many of these remedies, the study says.

What are potential difficulties?

Researchers say that while the stripe paint is cheap, easy and animal friendly, it’s not exactly durable; it’s considered a “short-term marker” that lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

With fly season lasting a whopping three to four months, researchers say new techniques must be developed to ensure stripes don’t fade, especially if the method is used at animal production sites.

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Dawson covers goings-on across the central region, from breaking to bizarre. She is an MSt candidate at the University of Cambridge and lives in Kansas City.