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Astronomy Picture of the Day


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Why a cow needs a flat-screen TV

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- When it comes to comfort, Kirk Christie's cows have it all -- a new barn, a flat-screen television and waterbeds.

Agnes lounges on a wood chip-covered waterbed in her stall in Slater, Iowa.

That's because of the dairy farmer's philosophy that a happy cow is a productive cow. More milk means more money, so Christie doesn't mind providing the frills.

"Them cows are my girls," said Christie, who runs a farm near Slater, about 25 miles north of Des Moines. "You ask anybody, I probably think more highly of those cows than I do myself."

Christie's 23 cows spend about 18 hours a day on waterbeds he installed in November. He said the beds, durable rubber mats that lay flat on the ground and are filled with water, were popular with the animals from the beginning. They provide heat for the cows in the winter and coolness in the summer, depending on the water Christie pipes in.

The beds are covered with wood chips for extra padding to prevent friction.

"They really took to them right away," he said. "When they're laying down chewing cud, they're comfortable and happy."

Christie's cows aren't the only ones enjoying such comforts. Industry experts say waterbeds are increasingly being used in dairy farms across the country, as well as in Canada and Europe, where the idea originated more than a decade ago.

The idea is to boost milk production by making the cows more comfortable. Leo Timms, a dairy scientist at Iowa State University, estimates cows with comfortable bedding produce 6 percent more milk daily.

"There's no question, probably one of the most important things is the comfort of the surface they lay on," said Timms, who conducts research at a university dairy facility. "The overwhelming majority (of dairy farmers) understand that."

Christie estimates his cows' milk production has increased 10 percent since he installed the waterbeds. He figured a flat-screen TV couldn't hurt, either, so the cows are spending the spring snoozing in their beds and enjoying "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Dr. Phil" and other shows.

"The nice part about it is they get used to different voices," Christie said. "A lot of people like to come in and look at my barn. When somebody different comes in and talks, the cows don't get all nervous because they're used to hearing different voices."

While Christie swears by waterbeds, most dairy farmers in the United States use other bedding methods for cows, such as mattresses or sand, industry experts said. Those methods are generally cheaper than waterbeds -- which cost about $200 each -- but require more upkeep, and sand can sometimes damage dairy equipment.

A study released last summer by Colorado State University found that sand and waterbeds are far more comfortable for cows than mattresses, which cause more swelling in their legs.

Temple Grandin, a professor who oversaw the project, predicted the findings would prompt more dairy farmers to invest in waterbeds, but said new dairy facilities would likely be the trailblazers.

"It's going to take time," she said. "Existing dairies just aren't going to change things overnight."

Dean Throndsen is hoping they do. He owns Advanced Comfort Technology Inc., a waterbed company in Reedsburg, Wis., that sells to dairy farms across North America and Europe.

Throndsen said business has flourished since farmers in the United States began investing in waterbeds about three years ago. He said he has lost count of sales but estimates he has sold 200,000 waterbeds.

"And demand is growing tremendously," he said.

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Japan turns back clock to give new life to lost storks


Oriental white storks in the Hyogo district of Japan, where the reintroduction of traditional farming methods is helping them thrive

When Japan's last oriental white stork died in 1971 it was thought that the birds had disappeared forever. The wetlands where the stork nested had been irrigated, and development damaged its habitat. But in a remarkable success story, the storks are thriving again after a reintroduction programme.

After more than three decades of extinction, the first captive storks were released into the wild in 2005. By 2007 the first chick had hatched, and this year a further nine chicks arrived.

Yoshito Ohsako, who heads the breeding programme at Toyooka, said: "We were so happy when we found the nests. It's not so long since we started, and this is real progress; a lot of people didn't even think we'd succeed at all."

Japan was forced to do the unthinkable: it had to go back in time. Aggressive development had driven the birds to extinction, so the only option left was to attempt to return the ecosystem to its pre-1971 state.

The Hyogo district – once the birds' heartland – bore the scars of heavy industrialisation and modern farming. Land that was not polluted or developed was used for farming, so the paddyfields which had once supplied plentiful food for fish, frogs and snakes dried up and became contaminated with pesticides.

To make this landscape hospitable again has meant going back to more traditional irrigation systems that allow rivers and ditches to flow into paddyfields. This creates pools of shallow stagnant water that encourage the ecosystem that the birds can feed on.

Cutting pesticides and using more traditional cultivation methods has also helped make the wetlands less toxic. Some electricity cables have been put underground to stop the birds flying into them.

Professor Ohsako said: "The connections between the paddyfields and the streams and ditches disappeared. In our project we reinstated the aquatic connection to create 'fish ways', that channelled fish to shallow water."

The total number of oriental white storks in the world is believed to be as low as 2,500, with most in China, Korea and Russia.

The renaissance of the birds comes as biodiversity takes centre stage in global politics. Biodiversity will be high on the agenda today when environment ministers gather for pre-G8 summit talks in Kobe.

Yuri Onodera, of Friends of the Earth Japan, said that while such reintroduction schemes were laudable, Japan lacked commitment to biodiversity on a global scale. "Japan may be putting energy into conserving its own domestic landscapes, but its commitment internationally is failing," said Mr Onodera.

"It has been a strong opponent of a binding commitment to global biodiversity; its domestic commitment has little impact while they are lagging behind on international commitment."

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Pictured: Photographer's moment of madness as he leaps across 8ft gap in the Grand Canyon

This is the heart-stopping moment a daring photographer leapt between two rocky outcrops over the Grand Canyon - with drop of nearly a mile beneath him.

A crowd of onlookers gasped in horror as the man - who was wearing flimsy flip-flops - risked his life to capture a stunning shot of the Arizona sunset.

Deadly risk: The unidentified tourist jumps a chasm at the Grand Canyon

Minutes earlier, the unknown daredevil had been casually sunbathing on a rock column.

He had already made the leap once to get to the smaller rock - although that act of daring went unwitnessed.

Once there, he made the most of it by downing a six-pack of beer while relaxing on the outcrop for several hours.

However, as sunset approached, a crowd of tourists gathered and watched as the man took a perfect shot of the canyon.

Fearless: The photographer sets up his tripod on a perilous pinnacle of rock

To their astonishment, he then simply tucked the camera and tripod under his arm and leapt back across the 8ft gap.

He grasped hold of the opposing rock face with just one hand and momentarily lost his grip before climbing to safety.

For those who find their heart skipping a beat just looking at these photographs, it may of some comfort to know that the two rocks are actually joined together lower down.

One, two, three, jump! The man takes his life in his hands as he makes the leap

However, there is still a life-threatening drop of around 20ft on the near, 'safer' side of the rocks. On the far side, the drop is about 0.6miles.

The photos were taken by amateur Dutch photographer Hans van de Vorst, 47, who visited the spot on holiday.

When he arrived at the scene the man, dressed in jeans, t-shirt and flip-flops, was lounging on the rock column around 15ft from the edge of the canyon.

Mr van de Vorst, a marketing consultant from Veenendaal in central Holland, watched as the man set up his tripod and captured the last minutes of the sunset, before
casually finishing his beer, packing up his equipment and making the leap.

'When we arrived he was just taking in the scenery and people were discussing how he managed to get on there in the first place,' he said.

'Nobody even bothered with the sunset - everyone's eyes were on this man and how he was going to get off the rock.

'He looked really relaxed and casually stood up before jumping across the gap.
'There was complete silence as he packed his things up and then a few gasps when he jumped.

'He didn't grab the rock properly the first time and slipped back about 50cm (20 inches) before clinging onto it. Even then he didn't look fazed.'

Terrifying: Tripod under one arm, the daredevil leaper clings desperately to the far wall after making his jump

Mr van de Vorst posted the pictures on the Internet in a bid to track down the mystery man, but no-one has come forward.

The Grand Canyon - which straddles the Colorado River - is 277 miles long and ranges in width from 4 to 18 miles with a depth of more than a mile at its deepest point.

It is one of the deepest in the world and is famous for its array of bright reds and oranges, which are caused by the unusual geological formations.

The dramatic pictures were taken at The Grand Viewpoint at the Grand Canyon's South Rim.

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