It may not feel like the most pressing issue of the day, but, hey, how often do we have the chance to opine about dairy cows? How often do we wonder about the best ways to raise such animals? More specifically, how often do we concern ourselves with their socialization and cognitive development?
If you are like me, not very often. And yet, research into this problem has offered some intriguing conclusions. Some even apply to the cows’ more human cousins.
The Economist has the story:
In laboratory animals—not to mention human infants left to fend for themselves in Eastern European orphanages—a lack of early socialization is also known to impede cognitive development. New research by Dan Weary and three colleagues at the University of British Columbia’s Animal Welfare Programme suggests that dairy cows also need early socialization if they are to achieve their full intellectual potential. The team’s findings may have profound implications for how dairy cows should best be raised.
As for the cow’s ability to develop its full behavioral potential, apparently, being raised in isolation is bad:
Professor Weary likes cows (as does your farm-bred correspondent). And over the past few years, as he and his colleagues were studying how calves behave after they are weaned, one thing became clear: those raised alone in pens acted oddly when they were introduced into the large groups in which they would live. They took a long time to start eating normally, largely because they were unable to recognise the unfamiliar feeder. As a result, they lost weight. Calves raised in pairs had little trouble finding food.
Moreover, lonely calves do not develop good social skills:
The lonely calves also lacked social skills. At first they appeared fearful in their newly enlarged social circle, but then started nudging other calves and following them around—or as Professor Weary puts it, “acting just like the annoying kid in the playground”. In general they found it hard to deal with new or novel situations, appearing confused and fearful. In short, they seemed quite stupid in both cognitive and social terms. And cows are not stupid.
Obviously, when a calf lacks the opportunity to interact with its peers, its cognitive development is inhibited:
Professor Weary notes that these findings appear to confirm that being raised individually creates a cognitive deficit in calves, perhaps the result of a lasting brain dysfunction (although the fear and anxiety caused by being left alone after post-birth separation from their dam may not help). He speculates that individual housing of calves may impair the development of neural structures—perhaps in the orbital prefrontal cortex, which might limit reversal learning, or in the medial prefrontal cortex, which might disrupt a calf’s response to changes in more abstract rules. He hopes to carry out further research into whether any damage is permanent or can be outgrown.
For the most part, of course, cows don’t speak, but it is interesting to notice that among humanoid creatures, as posted on Monday, the more words a baby hears in conversation with another human being the better his cognitive development.