“I suppose cows must be a bit like humans”
Why do cows need their friends? To improve their milk yield of course, why else? Perish the thought that the milk-production-units some call cows might actually need fulfilling social and emotional lives just like us.
Cows have best friends and become stressed if they are separated, as a student discovered while researching for her PhD.
Krista McLennan set up two different cattle pens: in the first, a cow was put with her best friend; in the second, two cows who did not know each other. They were left in their respective pens for 30 minutes during which time she measured their heart rates at 15 second intervals, and also their cortisol levels – the stress hormone.
I’m certain I don’t need to spell out her results – they were exactly what we would have predicted, without the research. Who doesn’t feel better with a good friend around?
The Mail Online sums up her findings like this: “Krista McLennan’s research could help improve milk yields by helping farmers better understand how to keep their cows happy.”
Chairman of Northampton NFU Trevor Foss, as you would expect, takes a similar line:
“The research could be of real use to dairy farmers. I’ve heard people say if you leave the radio on for the cows they’re a lot happier, so there might be something in this.” He added, ” I suppose cows must be a bit like humans.”
Now there’s a surprise Mr Foss! I doubt though you will allow that particular thought to linger in your mind for too long.
To be fair to Ms McLennan, her own summary of the research gives at least equal weight to the benefit for the animals that the company of friends provides : “If we can encourage farmers to keep an eye out for those cows which like to keep their friends with them, it could have some real benefits, such as improving their milk yields and reducing stress for the animals, which is very important for their welfare”.
The levels of cow happiness and milk yields are not the only things affected by togetherness, or lack of. A study from the other side of the Atlantic proves that togetherness also makes cows smarter.
Calves on dairy farms are taken from their mothers soon after they are born. Everyone knows the strength of the bond between all mammal mums and their babies, so the pain this enforced separation causes them both is impossible to imagine. The cow’s new baby is put in a tiny pen and kept entirely alone until she is weaned at 8-10 weeks, before rejoining the herd. I say “she”, because the male calves are surplus to requirements in a dairy herd and are disposed of, often shot because that’s cheaper than sending them to the slaughterhouse.
Students on the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia observed that calves that had been allowed the company of other calves after being taken away from mum, integrated much more easily back into the herd, while the calves that had been confined alone took longer to work out how to feed, and how to behave around the other cows in general.
“They were kind of like that annoying kid on the playground”
“First they were really shy, and then they started following the other calves around and wouldn’t leave them alone. It was like they didn’t have an off switch,” said Dan Weary, a professor at UBC’s Animal Welfare Program, and an author of the study’s paper.. “They were kind of like that annoying kid on the playground.”
That description sounds to me like some very lost, confused and lonely beings, and bearing in mind that those weeks of isolation after birth is the dairy farm norm for these babies, what a world of emotional suffering lies behind shut farm doors, just so humans can drink another mammal’s milk.
After that experiment, UBC devised a test to see if the 8 – 10 weeks of isolation not only affected the calves’ social skills but also their ability to learn, and adapt to new situations. They introduced the two different groups to a Y-shaped maze where they could find their way to a white bottle of milk down one fork, and an empty black one down the other.
First findings: no difference in the time it took the two sets to learn that the milk was in the white bottle. But when the researchers swapped the milk to the black bottle, the calves-with-friends quickly discovered where to find their food, while the lone calves struggled with the switch and were much slower to adapt.
As a further proof that isolation affects calves’ mental abilities, the research team introduced a small red plastic bin 8 times over two days, first to the calves-with-friends, and then to the lone calves, allowing them 5 minutes each time to interact with the bin. They found that the time the calves-with-friends spent showing interest in the bin decreased on each subsequent occasion it was presented, while the time the lone calves spent investigating it did not change from the first occasion to the last. It was like they hadn’t been able to learn anything about the red bin over those two days.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to know results from calves NOT separated from their mothers shortly after being born? Of course, this was not tested. Why would anyone want to know that, because calves have to be taken away from their mothers if humans are to drink the milk the cows produce for their own babies.
Anyway, the study concluded: “that cows raised in pairs are more flexible than cows raised alone. And flexible cows are good for dairy farmers. After all, even dairy cows are subjected to changes in their environment such as interacting with new robotic milking equipment and automated feeders.”
“Even dairy cows“? Says it all, doesn’t it?
Take a look at 10 Things to Love About Cows from One Green Planet to see some beautiful pics of these gentle animals and discover just how much more they are than ‘milk production units’.
Read about the real life of dairy cows here
Help to go vegan here
Even cows need friends – LA Times