Cow Science

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

“Do the cows come when you call their name?”

I posed this question to a dairy barn worker at Ohio’s Lake Farmpark. Her answer was negative. The names were mostly so the staff could tell one cow from another. “Cows are pretty stupid,” the worker told me.

Now it turns out that cows aren’t so stupid after all. And cows learn better with the buddy system. So says a new study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE.

Researchers found that calves housed in pairs learned better than calves that were kept alone. One test measured how interested calves were in a red plastic bin put into their pen as a novel object. Paired cows learned more quickly to recognize and then ignore the bin. You have to wonder if one said to the other, “Hmm—that old thing again? Wish they’d get us something in a bright yellow—with food!”

Another test tasked cows with figuring out whether to go to a black bottle full of milk or an empty white bottle. When the researchers switched the rules so the white bottle would be full, the paired cows were quicker on the uptake.

Farmers often use individual pens for calves to reduce disease risks. But small groups of two or three limits that risk, says Dan Weary. He’s a professor in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia.

Meanwhile, Europe’s FECUND study reports that cow fertility is “not so black and white.” Breeding programs in the 1960s and 1970s boosted Holstein milk production—but apparently at the expense of genes for fertility. Researchers are now looking for genetic markers to reverse a recent decline in cow fertility. CommNet and posted the news on AlphaGalileo.

Dairy farmers should be interested in both studies. After all, they need cows to have calves if they’re going to keep producing milk—and to have cows for the next generation.

Contemporary cows also need to learn more than how to feed. Robotic milking and similar systems only work if cows can figure out how to use them.

Speaking of cool cow machines, Michigan’s Kellogg Biological Station has a huge cow massager at its Pasture Dairy Center. All a cow has to do is stand in the right place, hit a switch, and a huge roller sweeps down to work out all the kinks.

The cows have certainly figured out how to work that one. I guess cows are a lot smarter than you think.


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