If the cows of America look just a tad more contented this summer, give much of the credit to Tom Moreland of the University of Maryland.
Mr. Moreland, research manager at the UM Agriculture School's dairy farm in Clarksville, is the lead inventor of an ingenious structure that goes a long way toward eliminating the bane of bovine existence -- flies.
It's a white-plastic chute, elegant in its simplicity, that brushes flies off cows and electrocutes the insects.
Mr. Moreland said tests at the rolling farm off Folly Quarter Road showed that the Livestock Walk-Through Fly Trap cut populations of horn flies and face flies -- the two most serious threats -- by 87 percent and 71 percent respectively. He said the chute has also proved effective against stable flies, the large stinging insects that can make a summer visit to a cattle barn unpleasant for both cows and humans.
Last month, the university announced that it had licensed the technology to Atlanta-based Orkin Pest Control Inc., which is rolling out the product across North America this summer under the trade name Fly Blocker System.
Company officials predict the chute eventually will become standard equipment in dairy and beef operations worldwide -- a development that could yield handsome royalties to the university and Mr. Moreland through UM's technology transfer program. Orkin executives are also enthusiastic about the chute because it does not rely on chemical pesticides to control fly infestations.
Flies might not rank high among the concerns of urban bipeds, but they can take a lot of the fun out of being a cow. And agriculture experts say that's no small concern for the industry.
According to Mr. Moreland, escaping and fighting flies can become a cow's or a steer's most compelling imperative during the summer and early fall fly season, distracting them from such occupations as producing milk or putting on beef.
Conservative estimates put the losses to the dairy and beef industry from fly infestations in the hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide.
"Unless you're involved in the agriculture field, you don't really realize how big this is," said Gar Fraley, general manager of Orkin Agribusiness Services.
Flies spread such afflictions as brucellosis, foot and mouth disease, anthrax and tuberculosis. Horn flies can bore into the beasts and cause wounds. Face flies get in cows' eyes and cause infections.
"You can actually get cows blind from bad infections of pinkeye," said Charlie Pitts, professor of entomology at Penn State University and a nationally recognized expert on fly infestations.
According to Dr. Pitts, fly problems are becoming an especially difficult problem for the cattle industry on the Eastern Seaboard as housing developments spread into formerly rural areas. As the new residents discover the downside of moving next door to a picturesque dairy farm, farmers become the target of complaints, he said.
"Some of these people are spending a half-million on a house and they can't get outside for a barbecue and they get upset," Dr. Pitts said.
Mr. Moreland, whose once-isolated research farm is now surrounded by current or soon-to-be luxury housing developments, is well aware of the problem. He said he's sure his residential neighbors have seen extra flies because of the state's Holstein herd, but he added that three years of using his prototype trap has gone a long way toward controlling the problem.
The chute is placed in the gateway between the cattle barn and the pasture. As the cows pass through it, flaps that resemble the hanging sheets in an automatic car wash brush the flies off their faces and backs.
Separated from their meal tickets, the flies do what comes naturally to them: Head for light. In this case, the light is a grid cut into the side of the chute that lures them into an electrocution unit that turns them into crispy critters.
"It's one after another -- pop, pop, pop, pop -- as they're going through it," Mr. Moreland said.
He said that on a summer day cows typically graze until about 2: 30 p.m., when the flies get too numerous for comfort. As the cows seek the shelter of the barn, those flies are electrocuted. When the cows return to the fields, the stable flies follow them and get zapped, he said.
"Cattle are real easy to train to go through it," Mr. Moreland said. Some of the smarter old heifers actually learn to take a walk through the unit whenever the flies get too irksome, he added.
Mr. Moreland said the inspiration came to him about three years ago as he was thinking about a research project for the following year.
He said he sketched out his idea and showed it to Richard Miller, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who said it might work. Along with Lawrence Pickens of the USDA, they built several prototypes, improving it each time. A key breakthrough came when they made the chute bright white, a color that flies seem to adore.
Mr. Moreland, 39, said the university's technology transfer program handled the application for the patent, which he shares with the USDA researchers, and lined up Orkin to take a look at a prototype.
"It's really a nice circle of the way research should work," Mr. Moreland said. He said he had been assured that most of the university's share of the Orkin royalties would go back into agricultural research.
Mr. Fraley said Orkin's tests of the device consistently showed reductions in fly populations of 71 percent to 87 percent.
Dr. Pitts said that would represent a "significant reduction" that would let farmers eliminate the use of expensive and environmentally harmful pesticides.
Mr. Fraley said the company has received a strongly positive response from farmers who have seen the device, which will sell for $2,000 to $2,500 per unit.
"We think this is the next big thing to hit the market," he said.
Pub Date: 4/04/96