Everybody needs friends -- especially baby cows. A new scientific study published in the research journal PLOS ONE shows that calves who are raised in isolation fare worse on cognitive tests than those who are raised in groups, suggesting that social creatures not only need to interact with others in order to develop successfully, but in order to develop at all. While many farmers separate their dairy cows in an effort to maintain herds more easily, research by Charlotte Gaillard of the University of British Columbia suggests that grouping baby cows together could actually be better for everyone in the long-run.
Gaillard's study relied on two groups of calves, all between the ages of four and eight weeks, who were divided into single and social housing and then given a series of tests. In the first test, cows were taught to associate either a black square or a white square with a reward -- food was hidden under one of the colored squares but not the other. Figuring out that one square meant food while the other didn't proved simple for both groups to grasp, but once the researchers reversed the outcome, the groups had different reactions. When the researchers moved the food under the square that hadn't meant a reward before, the calves who'd been raised alone had a difficult time figuring out what had happened. Calves raised together, on the contrary, picked up on the change much faster, which Gaillard attributes to the variability of living in an environment with others. According to her report, mixed social interaction produces a lack of predictability for the cows, which eventually makes them more adaptable.
In the second test, called the "novel object" test, the differences between the two groups actually became more apparent. When placed in a pen containing a plastic red tub -- the novel object -- the cows who were socialized eventually got bored with the object. But the cows who grew up alone never appeared to adjust to its presence at all. The study doesn't offer a conclusive explanation for why the calves couldn't get used to the object, but there are a few possible explanations.
First of all, the calves could have been more anxious after spending so much time alone, making it harder for them to understand that the red tub was not a threat. But, secondly, the baby cows were deprived of outside stimuli so they were enthralled by whatever sensation they could find. Gaillard concludes that the obvious cognitive differences between the two groups of calves aren't merely indicative of steps that could improve the quality of life for livestock -- they're also clues that could help farmers raise happier, healthier cows.