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Hannah Iwerseren, 10, of Middleton, Idaho, kisses her Holstein cow named Daisy as Josh Kratzberg, 10, of Caldwell, Idaho, rests on his sister's show cow named Mocha.
Hannah Iwerseren, 10, of Middleton, Idaho, kisses her Holstein cow named Daisy as Josh Kratzberg, 10, of Caldwell, Idaho, rests on his sister's show cow named Mocha.

The milk of human kindness

Researchers in the UK confirm what many farmers say they have known for years: give cows names and treat them like part of the family and they produce more milk.

The idea that a cow with a name would increase its milk production seems far fetched, yet researchers have discovered that the supposition is true. Researchers at Newcastle University in England found that cows with names may produce nearly 500 pints a year more than their unnamed counterparts. Dr Catherine Douglas, a member of the university's School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and an author of the study, said the research showed "what many good, caring farmers have long believed".

"By placing more importance on the individual, such as calling a cow by her name or interacting with the animal more as it grows up, we cannot only improve the animal's welfare and her perception of humans, but also increase milk production," Dr Douglas said in a statement. "Just as people respond better to the personal touch, cows also feel happier and more relaxed if they are given a bit more one-to-one attention."

To execute the study, 516 dairy farmers in the United Kingdom were questioned. Researchers found that 46 per cent of them called their animals by name. On average, cows with names produced 458 pints more annual milk yield. Nearly half of the farmers questioned thought that good personal contact with cows improved their temperament when it came to milking. The report, published in the journal Anthrozoos, was co-authored by Dr Peter Rowlinson, a senior lecturer in animal production science at the university.

A name, he says, is not necessarily important in itself. It is what having a name indicates about the way the animal is treated that is key. "The finding came from a survey, so what we can say is that there is a relationship, but we cannot say it's causal," he said. "It's probably just an indicator of good overall stock management. Because of this the cow is a happy cow, more content and more relaxed, is more likely to reach its appetite and is probably likely to be a better yielder."

While a good relationship with the farmer is likely to have benefits with many other farm animals, Dr Rowlinson says the effect is likely to be particularly pronounced with dairy cows. Dairy cows are likely to remain on a farm for five to six years, much longer than poultry or pigs. This allows stronger relationships to develop. While a good relationship with the farmer can make the animals happier, Dr Rowlinson says there is only so much treating animals kindly can do.

A pleasant farmer, he says, cannot make up for overcrowding or other aspects of an animal's physical circumstances that reduce its welfare. "There is a limit to how much you can ameliorate it purely by giving them a name," he explains. The research concerning the naming of dairy cows was part of a wider project that analysed how treatment can influence milk yield The researchers also looked at what benefits being kind to heifers - young cows - could bring. They wondered whether stroking and talking to the creatures could make them happier and improve their milk production in the future.

Over three years, in research described in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, some animals were brushed for five minutes each week in the weeks leading up to calving. "In a commercial system, heifers are a low priority - they are often put in a field away from the farm to become cows," Dr Rowlinson said. Just as with naming, brushing cows makes them more attractive to the farmer as a source of milk. Animals that enjoyed regular brushing were keener to enter the milking parlour and tended to behave better once they were there, and less likely to kick out or kick off the milking cluster that attaches to the teats. Overall, there was less of a fear response to humans.

"They were less likely to be troublesome and more likely to be relaxed in the presence of people," said Dr Rowlinson. While the latest research shows the value of giving animals individual attention, it is generally the case that as technology has developed, farming has become more intensive and relationships between a farmer and his or her animals have weakened. Very intensive indoor production of pigs and poultry tended to develop before that of cattle and sheep, which are ruminants and so more likely to remain outside where they can eat grass.

However, increasing numbers of intensive dairy units have been set up, especially in the United States and the Middle East. Some have also begun appearing in countries such as the United Kingdom where fields of cows have been a traditional part of the rural landscape. "It's a question of whether people are prepared to spend a lot of time and money growing forage, cutting forage and carting it to the animals," Dr Rowlinson says of the new plants.

"Dairy units in Saudi Arabia I have seen are just large, intensive units where the animals are kept 365 days a year." Dr Rowlinson believes the animals kept in such intensive dairy plants where they are housed indoors the whole time do not have "the freedoms to express normal behaviour". Such units do not, he says, fit the idea most of us have of what life for a dairy cow is like. "Often the management is quite good, but it's not necessarily where the general public would like to think of cows being all of the time," he says.

"Consumer perception is important and most people would like to think dairy cows are outside with the sun on their backs and the grass under their feet." While such systems may be more restrictive in terms of the animals' lifestyle, the potentially deleterious effects on happiness are more than outweighed in commercial terms by the efficiencies generated by such an intensive system. The cows are unlikely to have names, but these farms tend to be good producers of milk. "These systems have many pluses - they have good genetics, they have good feeds, but they're expensive, they have high inputs and they're still getting good outputs, even though some aspects of the animals' welfare is not everything we think an animal would like," he says. But in the long term, Dr Rowlinson believes such dairy units are "unlikely to be sustainable", in particular because of their high consumption of water, especially in places like the Saudi desert. "They are using fossil water from deep underground or expensive desalination plants and as well as the forage, they're probably using expensive imported cereals and protein supplements that may or may not be available in the future," he says. Perhaps in the long term, then, there could be a partial return to more traditional methods of dairy farming - and perhaps even a return on some farms to the age-old practice of giving cows names. dbardsley@thenational.ae

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