Be Kind to Cattle

The AnimalWise Soapbox

In a more ideal world, cattle would be free to lead lives consistent with their ancestry as nomadic grazers covering wide ranges. Of course, this isn’t a perfect world, particularly for the cows and other farmyard animals whose entire existence we have repurposed into the provision of meat and dairy products.

Without wading too deeply into the morass of moral issues raised by how we humans have transformed the environment and put other animals to work to serve our needs, it’s pretty clear that we have assumed a responsibility for the well-being of these animals who depend on us for everything.

Now, jumping down from the soapbox, what’s interesting is that, even if we were to disavow any ethical obligation to our bovine helpers, research continues to underscore how much it is in our own selfish interest to treat them with kindness and care.

A Cow by Any Other Name…

For example, one recent study1 that enjoyed some popular press attention found that named cows were better milk providers. That’s right, cows with names.

Uh oh, here comes what's-his-name...

In this study, researchers led by Catherine Bertenshaw and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University sent a detailed survey to every fourth dairy farm in England and Wales (1,000 in total), asking, farmers a number of questions regarding their attitudes toward cattle, how they managed dairy herds, and their perceptions of cows’ emotional and cognitive capacities. The response rate was 56% (52% after weeding out respondents who had recently ceased farming), with 90% coming from experienced stock managers who had worked with cattle for more than 15 years.

As noted above, cows don’t appear to enjoy toiling away in obscurity. On 46% of the surveyed farms, cows are called by name, and these cows produced an average of 258 liters more of milk per 10 month lactation period than did their anonymous peers (7938 liters versus 7680 liters). Moreover, on farms where the stock manager thought it important to know every individual animal, heifers had a 197 liter higher average milk yield over their first lactation than on farms where the manager thought it wasn’t important (6931 liters versus 6734 liters).

Does this mean that cows recognize their own names and appreciate it when they hear themselves being singled out?

While this is possible, the more likely explanation is that farmers who name and individually recognize dairy cows are more likely to treat them well. Bertenshaw and Rowlinson cite previous research finding attitude to be a reliable predictor of a person’s behavior around animals and that those having a positive attitude towards cows are “likely to handle animals patiently, to believe that regular positive contact is important, and to show positive behaviors towards the cows.”

Overall, the survey results indicate that – at least from the farmers’ perspective – there is a relatively positive relationship between dairy cows and stock persons on UK farms. Ninety percent of the respondents thought that cows had “feelings,” only 21% believed that dairy cattle were fearful of humans, and 78% thought cows were intelligent. (It would be interesting to see what percent think that their human coworkers were intelligent.) Also, on a somewhat reassuring note, 44% gave “love of cows” as a reason why they chose to work with cows.

Obviously, this is a subjective survey from one viewpoint (no word on when the cows will be receiving their questionnaires), but it provides important insight into the importance of our nurturing our relationships with other animals … and lessons that will serve us well when the Revolution comes (hilarious Dana Lyons video below):

♫  ♫  We will fight for bovine freedom, and hold our large heads high!   ♪  ♫  ♪


1Bertenshaw, C., & Rowlinson, P. (2009). Exploring Stock Managers’ Perceptions of the Human–Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association with Milk Production Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 22 (1), 59-69 DOI: 10.2752/175303708X390473.

Udderly Intelligent

While you might be willing to acknowledge that a cow can be out standing in its field, I’m willing to bet that you don’t typically think of Bessie as leading a rich intellectual and emotional life.  You might want to think again.

According to The Sunday Times1, “cows have a secret mental life in which they bear grudges, nurture friendships and become excited over intellectual challenges.” Moreover, cows don’t have a monopoly on farm animal intelligence, as the article reports similar findings for sheep, pigs, goats, chickens and other livestock.

Notable feats of barnyard intellectual prowess include:

  • Cows form friendship groups and spend most of their most of their timing licking, grooming and generally hanging out with a few other like-minded bovines.  They can also form dislikes and hold grudges “for months or years.” (Note to self: don’t get on the wrong side of a cow.)
  • Cows have become so excited in solving intellectual challenges such as figuring out how to open a door to get some food that their “brainwaves showed their excitement; their heartbeat went up and some even jumped into the air.” (Ok, that alone made this post worthwhile – I would pay to see a cow jump into the air as it solved a puzzle!)
  • Sheep can recognize up to 50 other sheep simply by looking at their profiles, and can remember the other sheep even after a year apart.  (Admit it, you can’t do that.)
  • Sheep can form strong affections for particular humans, become depressed when separated from their human friends, and greet them enthusiastically … even after three years.

So, a little additional respect for livestock is definitely in order.  While it may suit our purposes to think of farm animals as dumb, unfeeling beasts who exist only to serve us, this simply is not the case.  They are complex emotional beings that lead active intellectual lives filled with strong memories, friendships, dislikes, fears and great achievements.  Next time a cow turns its large head towards you and looks at you with those big brown eyes, remember that it just may leap with excitement if you tell it that it’s your friend.


1The Sunday Times (UK), “The secret life of moody cows,” February 27, 2005.

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