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Our 53rd Year

What’s in a “Moo”?

In search of ways to evaluate the welfare of animals, researchers in England have been eavesdropping on “conversations” between cows and their calves. Using highly advanced acoustic equipment and analysis techniques – never before applied for this purpose – they discovered that moos convey a lot more meaning than ever imagined!

The scientists spent 10 months digitally recording call sounds from two herds of free-range cattle on a farm in Radcliffe-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire. After a year analyzing all the data gathered, it was determined that mother cows use two types of contact calls with their calves: a quiet low-frequency call when the calf is nearby and a loud high-frequency call when the calf is far away. Calves produce one type of contact call when they’re separated from their mothers and they want to nurse.

But that’s not all the news about cow vocalizations.

“The research shows for the first time that mother-offspring cattle “calls” are individualized – each calf and cow have a characteristic and exclusive call of their own,” said Dr. Mónica Padilla de la Torre, who led the study at the University of Nottingham’s School of Life Sciences.

“Acoustic analysis,” she noted, “also reveals that certain information is conveyed within the calf calls – age, but not gender.”

Evidently, the idea that cow-calf pairs have their own distinctive call isn’t news to some farmers. As James Bourne, a cattle farmer in Lincolnshire, told the BBC, “A calf certainly knows its mother from other cows. If they are not distressed and they are calm, they will moo fairly low to the calf, almost talking to their calf. If they are distressed, in other words, they have lost their calf or are separated from their calf, it’s a much higher pitched moo.”

This study has inspired further investigations into animal communications outside of mother-offspring “chat” – findings that could bring about greater understanding of our 4-legged friends and positive changes in animal care policies.


“Acoustic analysis of cattle (Bos taurus) mother–offspring contact calls from a source–filter theory perspective” – Journal Applied Animal Behavior Science
“Cow researchers find meaning behind moos” – BBC News
“Do you speak cow? Researchers listen in on ‘conversations’ between calves and their mothers”