Imagine if you could understand what cows are trying to say when they moo, bawl or bellow.
It’s possible you might not really care to learn a cow’s language but for cattle producers, like dairy farmers, that skill could prove invaluable.
PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, Alexandra Green, is studying cattle bioacoustics, or “cow-moo-nication” as she likes to say.
The young scientist is recording the vocalisations of dairy heifers and trying to work out what they are saying in response to different farming contexts.
“We don’t think that they have a specific call for say, feeding, heat stress and isolation,” Ms Green said.
“It’s more that the features of their call changes depending on how aroused or how stressed they are.”
While a full analysis has not yet been completed, early research findings include a study of the partial isolation of cattle.
“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 there.
“Usually what happens 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.
“There’s still a bit of analysis that I have to do, but based on the preliminary findings, there are differences between the contexts based on just these call features.”
Ms Green said that understanding what cows were saying could change the way dairy farmers managed their herds.
“At the moment we have to map out the vocal repertoire of the cattle [and] work out what they’re saying before we do apply any technology,” she said.
“Further down the track, we could potentially use this as a behaviour monitoring tool to help assist farmers monitor the condition of their animal at an individual level.
“They might be able detect heat stress with it or when there’s a welfare-compromising situation on farm and that could alert the farmer to go attend to this heifer they’re vocalising.
“It is done in pigs so we’re hoping to mimic that down the track but first of all, we’ve just got to find out what they’re saying.”
At this stage of the research, only the vocals of dairy heifers are being recorded.
“It’s bit hard to record cows if they’re in milking because they’ve got to be milked twice a day, but if I’ve got the dry heifers, I can have them for the whole time and record them throughout the day,” Ms Green said.
“Hopefully down the track I’ll get to look at cows or older animals because the calls and the vocalisation change as the animals age and as they get larger, so it’ll be interesting to compare between heifers and cows.”
Ms Green said dairy farmers were so far 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,” she said.
“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’.
“It’s just a new, novel way of working out what the animal is saying and monitoring behaviour.”
Source: ABC News