The (More) Milky Way - New innovation seeks to balance pH levels in cows’ stomachs

Pekka Kankfelt is working on an innovation which could improve the health of millions of cows around the world – and result in soaring milk production, as well. Owner of 250 cows, this milk producer from Kymenlaakso Region in Southeast Finland is also an engineer – which explains, at least partly, his interest in finding a technology-based solution to a problem that has plagued cows since the dawn of time.

And what is that problem? This is the part where it might get a bit technical. Kankfelt explains that the proper functioning of the cow’s rumen – also known as the paunch – is a critical factor for cattle owners. In fact, all malfunctions of the rumen should be avoided at all times, since the wrong pH level in the rumen affects the well-being of the ruminant –and in the worst-case consequences are lethal.


Researching the Rumen

In order to know the state of the rumen, one typically measures the pH of the rumen liquid. Acidosis of the ruminant can be detected by oral sampling of rumen liquid or by puncture to the stomach using an injection needle. However, Kankfelt felt that these detection methods have either a problem of saliva mixed to the rumen liquid or a possibility of bacterial infection caused by an injection needle.

Doing further research into the matter, Kankfelt found out that there are different devices available on the market which utilize electric power to detect the internal state of the rumen. Usually, these devices include a magnet for taking out the detection device from the body and also include a monitoring system outside of the body of the animal which collects the data and monitors the state of the rumen.


Find the Trigger

However, Kankfelt soon assessed that these types of devices were problematic since they are rather expensive, their use is complicated and time consuming, and, usually, the devices must also be placed into the stomach of a ruminant somehow.

“I started thinking, if it would be possible to create a disposable, inexpensive device that stays inactive while everything is OK in the rumen – and will react only when the pH level becomes too high,” Kankfelt looks back on his 2012 ‘Eureka!’ moment.

What this means is that the cow-owner must give the device (e.g. capsule) together with the feed to the cow or the device (e.g. bolus) is installed into the rumen of the animal. Preferably, the device is a capsule for oral administration.

“The capsule features a coloring agent and a protective agent which dissolves in the rumen when the pH value is less than 6 for a prolonged time,” explains Kankfelt.  

“The pH value can drop below 6 for, say, 30 minutes and then recover to a healthy level without no alarms raised. But if the pH value stays below six for three hours straight, the capsule breaks, releasing the color agent.”


Alarm Goes Off

After this happens, it’s easy enough to see the difference: the color of the cow excrement changes and the cow-owner becomes instantly aware of the problem.

“Once the problem is exposed, cow feed will be optimized for better pH balance. After dietary improvement, one can eventually put in a new capsule,” explains Kankfelt, owner of an old family estate Näkkimistön Maito.

Kankfelt believes that the future end-product has “every chance” to offer cattle owners a cost-effective, easy and safe way to detect the acidosis of the rumen. Kankfelt has already registered a patent in Europe, with patent pending in the USA, too. Currently, he is looking for investors or partners to help develop the final product.

“Developing the actual capsule, which would probably be a cylinder-shaped small device weighing about 100 grams, in on the agenda next. Also, developing the coating materials is another pressing issue.”


Bovine Business

After talking with industry professionals and innovation specialists such as the national innovation agency TEKES, Kankfelt is convinced that the invention offers considerable commercial potential.      

He points out that ruminal acidosis is a well-recognized digestive disorder that affects not only the well-being of cattle, but also causes significant annual economic costs to the dairy industry. In Europe alone, according to Eurostat figures, the number of dairy cows was 23 million in 2014 – and millions of these cows are in danger of ruminal acidosis. And in North America, it has been estimated that sub-acute ruminal acidosis costs the local dairy industry between $500 million and $1 billion annually.

“Once the pH value gets too low, acidosis sets in and milk production becomes seriously compromised. If we can fix this via cost-effective means, that would result in better productivity.”  


Beyond Dairy

Furthermore, it’s not only dairy cows (and their owners) that could benefit from the innovation:

“Also, beef-fed lot cattle is facing the risk for developing ruminal acidosis which makes this new invention even more important,” Kankfelt says.


International Business in Kymenlaakso (Ibik) has contributed to this innovation action.