Cows and teenagers both get moo-dy, B.C. researchers say

First-of-its-kind study on dairy cattle could prove useful for farmers, researchers say

A UBC study released Feb. 12, 2020, has drawn parallels between dairy calves and human teenagers undergoing puberty. In this Aug. 31, 2016, file photo, a Holstein cow stands in a pasture at a dairyfarm near Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

It turns out the months – which can feel like years – of teenage angst isn’t just seen in the human household but also in the farm animal kingdom, according to a group of scientists at the University of B.C.

On Wednesday, researchers from the animal welfare program at UBC released findings from a long-term study which aimed to understand the development of personality traits over a dairy cow’s lifespan, which is roughly five years. Unsurprisingly, the study is the first of its kind into farm animal species behaviour.

The research, led by UBC professor Marina von Keyserlingk, involved observing how calves and cows reacted when placed in a new environment alongside a person they had never met before and a new object.

“Some calves and cows will immediately approach and investigate the object or human, or explore the new environment, while others will never touch the object or human and stand still for the duration of the test,” von Keyserlingk said in a news release. “We interpret the collection of these behaviours as reflecting two key personality traits: bold and exploratory.”

While calves between the age of three months and one year old won’t roll their eyes, make sassy remarks or slam their bedroom door shut, the study found a noticeable difference in a calf’s personality once they reach sexual maturity.

ALSO READ: Some cows are sadder than others, UBC study found

“This phenomenon is similar to that seen in humans, where teenagers often will express different personalities to that of when they were younger, and may again express different personalities when they grow up,” von Keyserlingk said.

“These changes in personality around puberty are also seen in squid, fish, junglefowl, and mammals like hamsters and mice.”

Researchers expect that a cow’s altered personality is linked to changing hormones. Dairy cattle are often mixed with new animals, or placed in new pens with new feeding equipment which also could play a role, the study suggests.

Researchers also found that calves that acted exploratory in the test situations generally ate more and gained more weight in order to produce more milk, compared to cows that reacted more fearfully of humans.

“These findings are important because they show that personality traits can be a useful indication of which animals will be most (or least) productive on the farm at different life stages,” said professor Marina von Keyserlingk, the study’s senior author, in a news release.

“Farmers could potentially identify calves and cows on the basis of personality who are likely to do well or poorly when faced with stressful farm-management practices.”


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