Cows in one of the pastures at Hilltop Farm in Monroe in May 2016. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

When it comes to production, there are dairy farmers who will tell you contented cows produce more milk. There is good science behind their claim. Stress inhibits the release of the hormone oxytocin which is crucial to the milk-releasing process. Barn design, inside temperatures and even playing music have all been shown to elevate a dairy cow’s mood and thus milk yields.

Now, thanks to the work of researchers in Europe, farmers have another way to relax their cows: by talking to them.

A study out of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Austria, and published in Frontiers in Psychology shows cows enjoy the sound of a human voice. More to the point, it needs to be a live human voice in a face-to-face chat. Pre-recorded conversations played over loudspeakers just don’t have the same impact.

Want an even happier cow? Pet or stroke it while you speak.

“Cattle like stroking in combination with gentle talking,” said Annika Lange of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Austria. “Interactions may be less positive when they become artificial.”

The researchers in Vienna found the cows’ heart rates were more varied when they were spoken to directly, indicating they were enjoying themselves. In addition, the heart rates were lower once the live chats were over, showing the cows were more relaxed.

And just how does a chill cow act?

“When relaxed and enjoying the interaction, the animals will often stretch out their necks as they do when they groom each other,” Lange said. “Additionally, it is thought that ear positions may indicate mood — hanging ears and low ear positions appear to be linked to relaxation.”

The Vienna study did not extend beyond talking to impact the mood of the cows, but in 2001 a team of psychologists from the University of Leicester, UK, found that listening to specific tempos of music improved milk production from a herd of Friesan cows. Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” and “Bridge over Troubled Waters” by Simon & Garfunkel were the biggest hits in the barn as far as the cows and milk production were confirmed. Researchers Dr. Adrian North and Dr. Liam MacKenzie also found their cows were not fans of rock and roll, which had no impact on milk yields.

“Calming music can improve milk yield,” North said. “Probably because it reduces stress.”

Anything that increases the relaxation of cows improves the cattle-human relationship, according to Lang. And that, she said, is an important aspect of animal welfare.

At this point, the next logical step in the happy cow research would seem to be performing live musical numbers for the cows. What could be more relaxing than a barnyard string quartet?

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.