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A moo-gnetic personality: UBC research shows baby cows have individual traits

A UBC researcher's bottle-half-full experiment shows calves can display optimistic or pessimistic behaviour

Marina von Keyserlingk poses with a cow calf at UBC Dairy Education and Research farm.

Martin Dee / UBC Public Affairs

Marina von Keyserlingk poses with a cow calf at UBC Dairy Education and Research farm.

Is the glass of milk half full or half empty? That depends on which cow you ask, according to new UBC research.

A new study is the first ever to suggest calves as young as one month old have personalities that are unique to each individual. UBC researchers taught 22 female calves that bottles on the right side of the wall always had milk in them, while bottles on the left side, had none. Then, at 30 days of age, researches led calves into the room but placed the bottle with milk in the middle of the wall.

Some calves tried drinking from the bottle anyway while others seemed to assume that any bottle that wasn’t in the usual spot was empty. Researchers deemed the calves that tried drinking from the bottle were more optimistic. Calves that didn’t bother with the bottle were labelled as pessimistic.

It’s the first time researchers have found evidence that cows are individuals, said Marina von Keyersinlingk, a land and food systems professor at UBC.

“We’re basically looking to see do they view the cup half full or half empty,” she said.

“We tend to manage farm animals as herds, but this is a piece of evidence shows the individual is important.”

Furthermore, researchers also tested each individual calf’s fearfulness by introducing a stranger to the pen and recording how long it took for a calf to greet the person, if at all. 

Calves that demonstrated pessimism in the milk bottle test also took longer to greet the person, showing that pessimism and fear are linked. The results were consistent across time as well. Individuals that displayed pessimism the first time were still pessimistic about 20 days later when they were asked to perform the same tasks.

“This is something that has already been shown in human literature – personality is innate,” said von Keyserlingk, noting that the calves were born and reared in the same environment.

She plans to eventually make recommendations on how farmers can cater the upbringing of individual cows to ensure they get the best standard of life possible.

For instance, she says pessimistic cows may do worse than their optimistic counterparts in highly competitive environments – like when there is crowding around the feed bunk. Von Keyerslingk also plans to research how cows’ personalities can predict how well they cope with transportation. 

This research was done with dairy cows in UBC’s Dairy Education and Research farm in Agassiz.

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