Recent research from the University of Northampton has highlighted the human-like relationships among cattle. The research found that cattle have selective friendships, and experience significantly less stress when they are hanging out with their mates.
The research was driven in part by the debate in the UK over so called mega dairies, those that hold between 3000–8000 head of cattle. Many within the dairy industry support mega dairies because they’re seen as a solution to improving competitiveness (which is often code for delivering milk at lower prices than ones competitors).
Previous research on domestic and feral cattle — both of which are usually found in small groups — had identified the existence of rich social bonds. For example, cattle reared together maintain strong lifelong bonds in comparison to cattle introduced or joining their group at a later stage. Researcher Krista Marie McLennan set out to look at the under-explored topic of how companionship matters to the wellbeing of cattle in larger commercial dairy settings.
Having set up her observations at a particular dairy farm, McLennan set out to first ascertain which cattle were best mates. Several thousand observations were logged whilst the animals grazed, rested and were fed. She was looking for which other cattle they spent most of their time in close proximity to. The researcher found a clear pattern of preferential relationships, with over 50% spending time and sharing space with one specific mate (interestingly, this preference wasn’t based on biological family).
Next, the researcher observed the physiological or behavioural effects of herd separation. They took eleven cattle who made up six pairings of prefered relationships. (One cow was besties with two others). The cattle were isolated from the herd: (1) for 30 minutes with their prefered partner, and (2) for 30 minutes with a non-prefered random cow. The findings revealed that cows separated with their prefered partner showed significantly calmer heart rates and lower levels of agitation, than when they were with the randoms.
Cows are stress heads
As part of modern dairy farming practices, cattle are frequently faced with being separated from their herd. There can be short term separation, as in the case of a routine vet check ups, or being put in an isolation pen after being milked or when they need a foot trimming. Separation can also be long term. In commercial settings this is most likely the result of a basic farming method known as ‘regrouping’. Here dairy cattle are physically categorised based on the production stage they’re going through. For example cows that are lactating are grouped together, and separated from those that are not. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that both short and long term herd separation can bring on stress, observed by increased vocalisation, physical struggling, and raised heart rates.
Regrouping is a particularly high source of stress. In commercial dairies, cattle are regrouped anywhere between 4 to 12 times a year. Each change means navigating around the social hierarchy of the new group, making it extraordinarily difficult for cattle to establish new social bonds. As explained by McLennan:
“The regrouping of cattle is often associated with an increase in aggression as individuals try to establish their place within the group’s hierarchy. Animals have to compete for access to vital resources, such as food and a space, to rest, in groups often dominated by individuals higher in rank. The stress associated with these changes in grouping can have significant health and welfare implications for dairy cows …”
The negative effects of being regrouped are most acute in their initial days of introduction, but will continue up until the social hierarchy is resettled. This can take anywhere between two to three weeks.
Cows have fallings out
Now for the part of the research that made me a little upset. The researcher simulated the situation in commercial dairies were cattle are separated from their besties and then reunited after a prolonged period. They held cattle with their preferential mates for two weeks, and they then separated them for two weeks, before reuniting them. Much like the consequences of short term separation, the cattle showed negative changes in their behaviour, health, welfare and productivity. But when reunited with their previous bestie, they showed few signs of social bonding. Their friendship was effectively over:
“Social bonds that had been previously identified appeared to have been broken after long term separation had occurred. Additionally, upon reunion cattle did not appear to regain their social relationships…This suggested that cattle were not as sociable after the separation period compared to before separation had occurred”.
The social and emotional range of cattle isn’t something we tend to think about. Cows are often thought of as dim-witted animals, with their value in our society as being nothing more than food producers. But the pioneering research from Krista Marie McLennan adds to the mounting evidence that like humans, camaraderie between cattle is an important offset to life’s stressful situations. It’s through our intimate relationships that people and cattle gain, a sense of balance and security.