Laura’s close look at the perfect pat

Laura Tennant (right) and Georgina Fielding-Martin (left), a research technician.
Laura Tennant (right) and Georgina Fielding-Martin (left), a research technician.
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THERE WAS a time when certain bodily functions were taboo for a prim society but Dr Christian, Dr Dawn and Dr Pixie’s discussions on Embarrassing Bodies show just how we have moved on.

In fact you could say we’ve become somewhat obsessed as a nation with tackling more squeamish topics - at least in the name of television. In the farming world however the increasing interest in examining poo is a given.

The value of understanding the effectiveness of what goes into your body in terms of what comes out has long been a consideration for dairy farmers, and many swear by charts grading the appearance of cow manure on a one-to-five scale of consistency and digestion.

Yorkshirewoman and University of Nottingham PhD student Laura Tennant is dedicating her studies to analysing the internal workings of a cow through what they excrete. The aim is to improve understanding of their health, digestion and stress levels - all of which can impact on the quantity and quality of milk.

‘Sieving’, ‘rinsing’, ‘treading’ and ‘extracting’ are all part of the day-to-day research tasks for Knaresborough-born Laura, but she echoes the ‘embarrassing bodies’ culture of interest in the subject by pointing out how most people are at least a little fascinated with their own poo, and how they link their health to what they see.

“Although dairy farmers can broadly tell whether their dairy cows’ diets are healthy based on looking at and assessing cow pats, it’s important to be as scientifically accurate as we can be to help with the right adjustments to diets that may be needed. Which is where my research will help advance understanding.”

The 26-year-old explained: “Cortisol, for example, is a hormone that’s produced in human and animal bodies in response to simple events such as waking up in the morning, or exercising - but it is also an indicator of stress if there’s too much present. So part of my work is extracting Cortisol from dairy cow pats to assess whether stress levels can help us understand what a dairy cow really thinks of her diet, as she can’t tell us. It’s a fascinating way of gathering feedback on what a dairy cow is experiencing.

“I started my scientific studies in human reproduction, but have been drawn to dairy cows where my work is still relevant to understanding fertility and health.”

Getting a dairy cow’s diet right is not easy, says Phil Garnsworthy, the University’s professor of dairy science.

“Cows eat up to 12 meals a day for around 45 minutes a sitting, it is pretty fundamental to the core of their being, ensuring the ‘rumen’ - a key part of a cow’s stomach in which food is collected - is fully food-satisfied and working properly.

“Size, texture, sound as the poo drops, as well as consistency are all important measures that we should be looking for. And it’s not just down to the dairy farmer to work it out as dairy consultants, nutritionists and vets will all help score dung consistency.”

It may not be a topic with universal appeal but Prof Garnsworthy says expertise like Laura’s is in demand.

“It’s pretty much an industry obsession and an interesting example of how many different roles and careers there are in the industry beyond the tag of dairy farmer,” he said.

Regular monitoring of dairy cows’ performance and health is vitally important to ensure diets are delivering for cows, and for the dairy farmers who rely on everyday milk output for their livelihood, according to Dr Jenny Gibbons, research and development manager at AHDB Dairy, the industry body working on behalf of Britain’s dairy farmers.

She adds: “We’re excited to see how Laura’s work can help the dairy farming community understand and further develop a cow’s diet for the long term.”

Laura puts her research into simple context: “It’s about playing a really important part in the food chain, from field to fork. Which means the journey from cow pats in a field, to the Ploughman’s people enjoy in a pub and the latte-fuelled world of commuters on an everyday basis. Every step counts.”


Laura may have left behind God’s Own County for now, but she is a proud Yorkshire lass.

Born in Knaresborough, she attended King James’s School and later moved to Harrogate.

“Yorkshire is where my heart is and that’s where my love of agriculture began - there is no better county for it.

“I spent my childhood riding and competing ponies, and completely fell in love with the countryside.

“In the first summer of my undergraduate degree, I did work experience at TD Goodall’s Dairy in Scarcroft, Leeds. This was the true start of my love of dairying.”