Friendlier Farms

By Jeffrey Kluger|Tuesday, March 01, 1994
I don't know about you, but if it's true that our behavior in this life determines how we'll spend our next ones, I'm not looking forward to being reincarnated. The way I've conducted myself for the last few decades pretty much guarantees that I'll be spending my next several lifetimes as something just slightly less than human--a box of Chiclets, for instance, or Howard Stern.

Actually, if you really want to punish a lifelong ne'er-do-well, don't bring him back as a sea sponge or a raisin or a shrimp fork--bring him back as a farm animal. Of all the creatures to evolve in the last several billion years, few have a tougher job description than the average resident of the average farm.

Domestication of animals began inauspiciously about 11,000 years ago with the earliest appearance of agriculture. Rounding up creatures willing to work in this exciting new field wasn't easy, mostly because the hours were long, the opportunities for career advancement few, and the retirement benefits lousy. (Help wanted: Cow. No experience necessary. Must be willing to be relocated, eaten.) Ultimately, however, with aggressive employee-recruitment drives, the occasional job fair, and lots of rope, humans were able to persuade animals to come work for them. Most of the new employees were sorry they accepted the invitation.

In recent times chickens have had it harder than most other farm animals, growing up in crowded coops and going from hatchling to zestily seasoned McNugget in a matter of months. Cows generally stay on the job longer, but their work environment does not exactly include an employee lounge and an on-site health club, either. While beef cattle at least get to spend a fair amount of their time grazing in fields before going from Old MacDonald's place to Ronald McDonald's place, dairy cows usually pass their days in barns, corrals, and stalls, whisking away flies, eating processed grain, and being handled by their employers in ways that would make Bob Packwood blush.

For these animals, however, as well as for many of their barnyard brethren, life on the farm is about to get easier. Three years ago the U.S. Congress and Purdue University created the inelegantly if straightforwardly named Center for Food Animal Well-Being, an experimental farm on the Purdue campus, near West Lafayette, Indiana, designed to study how farm animals like to live and how farmers can best provide them with their ideal environment. In lean economic times, when the government is already considering accepting Necco wafers as tax revenue, such a federally funded program comes as something of a surprise. Nevertheless, for the past three years Washington has sent more than $500,000 annually to Indiana in an effort to come up with ways to improve the well-being of the country's nonhuman--and definitely nonunion--work force.

"What we're trying to do for animal laborers," says animal scientist Jack Albright of Purdue, "is no different from what we try to do for human laborers: create a work environment in which they can be as contented, as comfortable, and, as a result, as productive as possible."

In the opinion of many animal advocates, the first real research into the work life of livestock was conducted at the University of Reading, in England. There, in 1974, animal behaviorist Martin Seabrook undertook a study designed to determine what type of person is temperamentally best suited to be a stockman (the twentieth-century version of a cowboy, without the holster, hat, and spittoon) and whether the cows themselves can tell the difference between people with a natural gift for husbandry and mere pretenders. Seabrook rounded up 20 English stockmen and asked them to complete a standardized personality test known as the Eysenck Survey. Although the survey was not designed with stockmen in mind, it did ask subjects to respond to a number of statements--such as "I anger quickly," "I need a lot of company," "I have absolutely no interest in starting an office football pool"--that could reveal a lot about their ability to pursue a career in herding.

"When Seabrook had tallied his results," Albright explains, "he broke the subjects down into four groups: confident introverts, non- confident introverts, confident extroverts, and non-confident extroverts. He then looked at the milk output of each herd and tried to correlate those findings with the personalities of the stockmen. Far and away, he found, the most productive animals were tended by the confident introverts, with outputs up to 20 percent higher than those of the other groups."

For researchers like Albright, Seabrook's work was a major breakthrough. While nobody but manufacturers of pasteurized processed cheese food could ever make a Laughing Cow, it was apparently possible for ordinary stockmen to produce happy cows. The key was good employee relations.

In the few years the Purdue facility has been open, the Indiana researchers have tried everything but employee softball games to keep the morale of their animal work force high. Albright had observed, for example, that mother cows groom their calves by licking them under the chin--a practice that both parties seem to enjoy--and suspected that if human handlers gave the newborns similar treatment, the animals would stay healthier and more free of stress. Of course, trained cattle-licking technicians are not always easy to come by, but Albright figured that scratching and stroking might be an effective substitute. So far it seems he's right; at Purdue, scratched cattle appear to be calmer than their unscratched herdmates. In addition to the petting regimen, Purdue calves are also routinely let outside for exercise and released into fields with other calves.

"In all these cases," Albright says, "the calves react enthusiastically, kicking up their heels, grooming one another, and lying down together--all signs that they're relaxed and content."

Just as important as the hours the animals spend outside the barn are the hours they spend inside. For dairy cattle this time is especially important, since milking an entire herd can be a time-consuming affair, and most cows aren't given so much as a copy of Highlights for Children or People to flip through while they're waiting. But researchers have discovered a new way to help keep their cattle content during the long process of milking: music. As creatures as diverse as birds, whales, and Axl Rose have demonstrated, you don't have to be a fully certified Homo sapiens to have an appreciation for music. Music therapist Alicia Evans decided to find out if cows might respond to a few piped-in tunes.

What kind of music should you select for a barnful of large, four-legged herd animals? Certainly Buffalo Springfield, the Cowsills, and the Llamas and the Papas leap to mind. Evans, however, chose a more eclectic playlist, assembling a collection of selections that included Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Haydn's Symphony No. 7 in C Major, a random sampling of country songs, and a few headbanging hits from the 1970s group Kiss. In addition, she included a less hummable selection of environmental sounds like whirring fans, gunning car engines, and clattering jackhammers.

After equipping an Indiana barn with an array of stereo speakers, Evans played her collection to a herd of 42 Holstein dairy cows for 13 days and observed their reactions. Since cows that liked what they heard would not be able to send out for the boxed CD set, Evans measured their response in the only way she could: milk production. If output rose when the cows were listening to one type of music, Evans would conclude that they liked what they were hearing; if it fell, she would assume they were giving the tune the thumbs (or hooves) down.

The music-milk link turned out to be a strong one. Proving that being a ruminant is no bar to being a sophisticate, cows listening to Beethoven and Haydn upped their milk production by 5.5 percent. Country music did not fare nearly so well, with Willie, Kenny, and the Judds yielding almost no change in milk productivity. Kiss did even worse than country. Balking at the volume of the music, the relentlessness of the beat, and perhaps lyrics that not even four stomachs could stomach, the cows were reluctant even to enter their stalls when the heavy-metal band was playing. When they finally did, they reduced their milk output by 6 percent. Perhaps the only consolation for Kiss's few remaining fans is that the Holsteins appeared to like jackhammers even less than headbangers, cutting milk flow by 12 percent when the environmental sounds were playing.

"It didn't necessarily surprise us that livestock would respond better to Beethoven and Haydn than to construction equipment," Albright says. "But it was remarkable to learn that the effect on milk output could be so direct."

Albright is currently conducting studies to help him not just manipulate the moods of his cows but read them too. For example, he's looking into bovine body language--or, specifically, tail language. When cows are relaxed, it turns out, the tail hangs straight down; when they are threatened, it hangs away from the body. Frightened cows, like frightened dogs, will even tuck their tail between their legs. So far, however, even the most timid heifers do not appear inclined to crawl under the bed, jump into your lap, or hide out in the linen closet, something Albright takes as a net plus.

Pigs may benefit as much as cows from the attentions of the Purdue researchers. The modern pig, Albright explains, is a direct descendant of the European boar (no relation to John Major, the European bore; Helmut Kohl, the European boor; or P. W. Botha, the non-European Boer), an animal that eats by poking its nose through detritus on the forest floor looking for roots, grubs, bugs, and other indelicate edibles. Because this literal trail mix is often scarce in the wild, the boars are genetically hardwired to root all the time. In captivity the behavior is in even greater evidence, though in this case, Albright explains, it serves less as a way to hunt for food than as a way to displace nervous energy-- sort of like the social munching humans do at parties, except that the pigs don't also have to make small talk about NAFTA.

To learn how to enhance their captive pigs' rooting interest, the Purdue researchers conducted experiments in which they filled the animals' pens with different materials and then stood back and observed which ones encouraged the porcine subjects to root the most. Among the materials the researchers tried were peat moss, logs, rubber hoses--which apparently remind the pigs of the vines that sometimes cover forest floors--and "piggy balls," plastic balls partially filled with water that roll unpredictably when pushed. The researchers suspected that their animals would like peat best (though some might prefer Ringo), and when the experiment was concluded, that was just what they found.

"Peat moss is made up of partially decomposed leaves, wood, and plants," Albright says, "just what you'd be most likely to find littering the ground in the forest. When our pigs were exposed to peat, they spent far more time rooting in it than they did in any other medium. To other animals, this might not seem like much of a way to spend a day, but a rooting pig appears to be a happy pig."

It is not only four-legged, hooved livestock that is starting to live the good life in Indiana, but also the two-legged, feathered kind-- particularly chickens. Cohabiting hens have a nasty habit of setting up pecking orders that breed so much death, injury, and all-around grumpiness that they eventually lead to low egg production. The standard practice in the poultry industry is to trim the chickens' beaks to make the pecking less harmful. But Purdue animal scientist Bill Muir has taken a different approach: breeding good social skills. He keeps several hundred birds housed 12 to a cage and observes them, trying to correlate how well they get along with how productively they lay eggs. By selectively breeding the most peaceable groups, Muir hopes to enhance this trait. So far, Muir says, he has bred six generations of pacifist poultry, each less combative than the one before it. In the last group, fowl fratricide had been all but eliminated, while egg production went up 6 percent.

Additional studies with chickens are helping researchers plan coops that are not only roomier but cooler. Farmers have generally thought that chickens have a remarkably high tolerance for heat. But Purdue research has revealed that as the birds get older, they like things colder. The ideal temperature for newborn chicks is about 95 degrees, but it now appears that within six months this preferred thermometer reading drops to just 75 degrees. (Within another couple of months, of course, it climbs again, this time to 400 degrees for 45 minutes or until crispy.)

Whether any of the Purdue research will actually lead to livelier livestock, happier herds, or more frolicsome fowl is unclear. But in a decade devoted to nurturing everything from our inner children to our inner tubes, Purdue's researchers clearly seem to be in tune with the times. "At bottom," Albright says, "our work is about animal cognition. We want to get inside the animal's head, to figure out what it feels, what it perceives, and how we can make it happier. Creatures that many people think of as very simple can in fact be very complicated." Maybe there's hope for Howard Stern after all.
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