Can cows learn from observing other cows?

Project aims:

Can cows watch and learn when observing other cows performing a detour task?

Will cows react less fearful when crossing a novel surface after watching a calm companion crossing the novel surface?

The project investigates aspects of ‘true social learning mechanisms’ in cow-cow and cow-human learning situations, which are currently unknown. Social learning enables the cow to learn a completely new behaviour from just observing another individual performing it (Rørvang et al. 2018). It has been pointed out by several authors that knowledge about this is crucial in order to shed light on how cows learn and navigate their social environment (e.g. Phillips 2010; Rørvang 2018; Nawroth et al. 2019). Should cows possess the ability to learn by observing one another, it will place them on a higher scale in terms of their cognitive abilities as compared to e.g. horses and goats. If cows are able to utilize social learning mechanisms it will enable new ways of keeping cows as the animals then learn about their environment more efficiently than previously anticipated. For example, farmers would only need to train one cow in how to use a milking robot, as the rest of the herd would be able to learn the task by observing the trained cow.

The experiments were conducted in the summer of 2021 at Naturbruksskolan Uddetorp in Skara, Sweden. A wonderful place with Holstein, Jersey and Swedish Red cattle.

Getting to know our new project partners,
foto: Jenny Yngvesson

Project partners: Jenny Yngvesson and Johanna Stenfelt

Read about the project in Swedish via the interviews in popular scientific media – find the articles here.

The project findings were communicated at the Nordic ISAE meeting in Uppsala 26-28 January 2022, read more here.

The results from the project’s first experiment have been published in Journal of Dairy Science, and the open access article can be found here.

The results from the project’s second experiment are under review with Frontiers in Veterinary Sciences.

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