Cows can make friends—BBFs, to use the vernacular—and at least one researcher has shown that such bonds among a herd may impact a dairy’s bottom line.

Krista McLennan, a researcher and associate lecturer in Animal Welfare, made the discovery while working on her doctoral program involving a study ofthe social bonds among dairy cattle and the effects of group systems on welfare and productivityat England’s Northampton University. McLennan said her findings could help improve milk yields at commercial dairies.

The 27-year-old measured the heart rates and cortisol levels of cows to see how they cope when isolated, according to reports in several UK newspapers. Cattle were penned on their own, with their best friend or with another cow they did not know for 30 minutes and their heart rates were measured at 15-second intervals.

The research showed cows are indeed social animals and often form close connections with other animals in their herd.

“When heifers have their preferred partner with them, their stress levels in terms of their heart rates are reduced compared with if they were with a random individual,” McLennan told the Daily Guardian newspaper.“If we can encourage farmers to keep an eye out for those cows which like to keep their friends with them, it could have some real benefits, such as improving their milk yields and reducing stress for the animals, which is very important for their welfare.

McLennan noted that modern farming practices often means cows are separated during visits from a veterinarian or when farmers move their animals.

“We know re-grouping cows is a problem, because there’s a high level of stress among animals as they try to integrate into a new group,” she stated.

What it all means

The story of “bovine buddies” has received enormous media exposure, especially considering that it was a doctoral project, not a study authored by seasoned scientists. Earthweek, the environmental news service, covered it in detail. VegNews, a British vegetarian news service, trumpeted the findings under the headline, “Cows get Stressed When Separated.” Mainstream media also got involved, with stories syndicated by the Associated Press, McClatchy-Tribune News Service also weighed in with reports on the research.

Why? Three reasons come to mind:

  • Anthropomorphism. We modern folk humanize virtually every species in the animal kingdom,. Egged on by the endless Disney-fication of animals, we ascribe human-like intelligence, emotions and behaviors to everything from singing, dancing dinosaurs to cats and dogs with more personality than game-show hosts to sharks who swear off eating fish in order to access their nobler selves. Within that contest, cows palling around with buddies in the barnseems as natural as the hay that they’re eating.
  • Empathy. Deep down, almost all of us want food animals treated humanely and given opportunities for a satisfying life while they nourish us, in this case, with meat and milk. If “friendship” can be part of that package, all the better.
  • Reconnection. With the cultivation and production of virtually all of our food-supply staples—with the possible exception of some summertime excursions to a u-pick field or farmers’ market—divorced and distanced from us urban dwellers, the idea that something simple (simplistic?) could leverage a better life for dairy cows provides a pathway for people to feel as if they have informed opinions on the often-complex issues related to food.

All that said, from what has been published, a change in management that would allow cows to spend the bulk of their time with herd mates that seem to keep them calmer makes sense. With all livestock, producers invest heavily in ventilation, lighting and feeding systems designed to reduce stress and improve performance.

Why not a buddy system? If it helps maintain the cows’ temperament and positively impact production, that seems like a sensible strategy to pursue.

And if it helps support the notion that producers are growing more sensitive to animals’ emotional and psychological needs, where’s the harm in that?

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator