How speaking ‘cow’ is revolutionising modern farming

Alexandra Green
Lead author Alexandra Green at the University of Sydney’s Mayfarm near Camden. Image: Lynne Gardner

A breakthrough in the way we communicate with cows is assisting farmers tune into the emotional state of their cattle.

Research fresh from the University of Sydney (USYD) suggests that cows maintain distinct voices in a variety of emotional situations, displaying individual identities when ‘talking’ – or mooing – to each other.

Studying a herd of 18 Holstein-Friesian heifers over a five-month period, PhD student Alexandra Green from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences found that cows give individual voice cues – excitement, arousal, engagement or distress – in a variety of positive and negative situations.

Positive contexts were things like anticipation of feeding, whereas negative circumstances were when cattle was denied feed access or during isolation from their herd.

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“We found that cattle vocal individuality is relatively stable across different emotionally loaded farming contexts,” explains Alexandra, who stresses that by understanding these vocal characteristics, farmers will be able to recognise individual animals in the herd that might require individual attention.

“We hope that through gaining knowledge of these vocalisations, farmers will be able to tune into the emotional state of their cattle, improving animal welfare,” she adds.

So you can speak cow, now what?

Likened by Alexandra’s supervisor, Associate Professor Cameron Clark to “Google translate for cows,” the USYD grad’s research included 333 samples of cow vocalisations, which were analysed with the assistance of colleagues in France and Italy. Alexandra travelled to Saint-Etienne, France, to work with some of the best bio acousticians in the world, including co-authors Professor David Reby and Dr Livio Favaro, to analyse the vocal traits of the cattle.

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Although it was previously known that cattle mothers and offspring could communicate by maintaining individuality in their lowing, Alexandra’s research confirms that cows maintain this individual voicing through their lives and across a herd.

“Cows are gregarious, social animals. In one sense it isn’t surprising they assert their individual identity throughout their life and not just during mother-calf imprinting,” she concludes. “But this is the first time we have been able to analyse voice to have conclusive evidence of this trait.”

The study will be incorporated into Alexandra’s doctorate, which investigates cattle vocal communication and use in welfare assessment on dairy farms.

Is STEM + agriculture your thing? Get more animal science career inspiration here.

Cassie Steel

Author: Cassie Steel

As Refraction’s digital assistant, Cassie Steel spends her days researching robots and stalking famous scientists on Twitter.

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