‘Cow-moo-nication’ – PhD student tries to understand cow language

A PhD student from the University of Sydney is studying the vocalisations of dairy heifers to understand what they are saying.

Alexandra Green refers to it as “cow-moo-nication” and says that dairy farmers have been interested in and excited by the research.

“I was speaking to one before and he was saying, with consumers becoming more aware of farming practices and more interested, we want to show them that we have happy, healthy cows,” Ms Green said.

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“So if we can work out what they’re saying, [we can] show the public ‘look this is a happy cow, she’s saying this’.”

The project is currently looking only at heifers and early findings have shown how social isolation affects their pitch.

“I separated a heifer for half an hour from her herd, and she could see her herd,” Ms Green said.

“That was the least stressful, based on her vocalisation, so the pitch of her call was a lot lower. Usually, when the animal becomes more excited or more stressed, the pitch of their vocalisation increases, their calling rate will increase, so they’ll start vocalising a lot more [and] the duration of the call might extend as well,” she added.

Herd management

Ms Green believes her research could help farmers with herd management.

“At the moment we have to map out the vocal repertoire of the cattle [and] work out what they’re saying before we apply any technology,” she said.

“Further down the track, we could potentially use this as a behaviour monitoring tool to help farmers monitor the condition of their animals at an individual level.”