How scientists use ‘portholes’ to study cows’ rumens

One scientist said the porthole method is important if "we are going to maximise food production and minimise greenhouse gases"

The practice of piercing portholes into cows dates back as early as the 1920s. Photo: Supplied/VCG

The practice of creating portholes into cows is said to date back as early as the 1920s. Photo: Supplied/VCG

Since the beginning of time, researchers and scientists have been known for using unconventional methods to try and understand the world around us. Who would have thought that they could cut holes into cows’ stomachs to better understand their digestive system?

Veterinary researchers in Europe and the United States have been experimenting on cow digestive systems for many years, using “porthole” to access their rumens. The method is not sitting well with some animal lovers.

According to the website Farm Animal Report, the surgical procedure is done when the cow is standing. Local anaesthesia is given and the skin is cut to create a hole. A cannula is passed through the hole to keep it open. “A removable cap is also included for easy access. After a period of six months, when healing is completed, the cow becomes ready for the desired purpose.”

The aim of the experiment is reportedly to perfect feeding so the cows produce as much milk as possible. It is done more specifically to study the animal’s digestive system and to “reduce the use of antibiotics and lower the nitrate and methane emissions linked to livestock farming”.

According to researchers, this practice dates back to as early as the 1920s.

The BBC reports that Scotland Rural Collage academic director Jamie Newbold has said studying cows’ stomachs is important if “we are going to maximise food production and minimise greenhouse gases”. The method is used for assessing the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract and to conduct digestibility trials, for instance, by allowing access for taking samples.

“It’s an operation normally done under anaesthetic, but once the animal has recovered, it tends to live far longer than the average cow. It suffers pain during the process but I’m aware of animals living 12 to 15 years after the operation has been done,” said Newbold.

In some parts of Switzerland, cows with portholes are sometimes showcased at agricultural events during which people are invited to reach with their hands down the cow’s stomach.

But in 2019, images from France of cows with portholes caused outrage on social media, with many animal lovers condemning the practice. Political figures also condemned the practice as illegal and serious animal abuse.

Despite it sparking an outcry, it is still practised in many parts of the world.  

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