How To Make A Cow Smarter: Give It A Buddy, Study Finds

By Ben Wolford on February 26, 2014 5:19 PM EST

cow
Can a buddy system help grow cows' brains? A new study looking at social isolation says lonely calves are much duller than calves that have been raised in groups. (Photo: Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Cows aren't known for their smarts. "Be not like dumb, driven cattle!" wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Scientists in Canada, however, are insisting that farmers can help their cows become somewhat less stupid. According to their findings, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, cows with friends are much better at trapping a thought.

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It's fairly common these days for farmers to raise their cows by themselves in separate pens until they're weaned at about two months old. They say this practice prevents the spread of diseases. But according to researchers from the University of British Columbia, nobody had every investigated whether social isolation was dumbing down their already thick-skulled livestock. And cow intelligence does matter: In increasingly automated farms, dairy cows and meat cattle alike are expected to cooperate with automated technology. It helps if they don't freak out every time they see a milk pump.

"Slow adaptation can be frustrating for cows and farmers alike," noted the University of British Columbia. To test their hypothesis that solitary confinement is bad, the researchers devised a simple experiment involving a big red bucket. They designated test calves (who were raised in groups) and control calves (who were raised alone). Then they placed a red bin in their pens... and observed.

At first, all the cows rushed over to the strange red object in their midst. Over time the cows with buddies got used to it being there and eventually ignored it. Meanwhile, their lonely counterparts kept inspecting the bucket as though they'd never seen it in their lives. "The test suggests that individual rearing can make calves more sensitive to novelty, and thus less able to habituate to changes in their environment," says Dan Weary, one of the authors of the study, in a statement. "This could make it more difficult for a farm animal to be trained or to do something as simple as walk down a path and not be overwhelmed by a bright light or a new noise."

For a second test, they placed the cows in a Y-shaped maze. In one direction, there was a black bottle full of milk; in the other was an empty white bottle. The researchers trained the calves to approach the black bottle. Once they'd all sufficiently learned the drill, the researchers changed the rules: Go to the empty white bottle instead. The socially inept cows were stumped. They "persisted with the old strategy," co-author Rebecca Meagher said. The calves with buddies were more likely to learn the new rules.

According to Weary and Meagher, their experiment falls in line with other studies on rats that showed social rats are smarter. As for the diseases that prompt farmers to isolate their cows in the first place, Weary, who teaches at the university's Animal Welfare Program, says keeping them in small groups will accomplish the same goal. "The risk of one animal getting sick and affecting the others is real when you're talking about large groups, but not with smaller groups like two or three," he says.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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