Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Call 'Em Anything but "Late for Dinner"

From: Pull the udder one? Calling cows names 'makes them produce more milk'
Matthew Weaver
Wednesday January 28 2009

"Cows with names such as Ermintrude and Daisy produce more milk than cattle without names, researchers claimed today.

The study, which has prompted a pull-the-udder-one attitude among sceptics, said cows treated with "the personal touch" are happier, and produce higher milk yields than cows treated as just one of a herd.

Researchers from Newcastle University asked 516 British dairy farmers about their attitude to the behaviour and welfare of their cows. Those who called cows by name said they had a 258-litre higher milk yield than those who did not.

The study was published in an online journal called Anthrozoos, which is described as a "multidisciplinary journal of the interactions of people and animals". Critics claimed the study was flawed and confused a correlation with causation.

Dr Catherine Douglas, who conducted the research, said: "By placing more importance on the individual, such as calling a cow by her name or interacting with the animal more as it grows up, we not only improve the animal's welfare and her perception of humans, but also increase milk production."

She added: "Just as people respond better to the personal touch, cows also feel happier and more relaxed if they are given a bit more one-to-one attention. What our study shows is what many good, caring farmers have long since believed."

Dennis Gibb, who co-owns Eachwick Red House Farm at Dalton, near Newcastle upon Tyne, with his brother Richard, says he believes treating every cow as an individual is "vitally important". He said: "Collectively we refer to them as 'our ladies' but we know every one of them and each one has her own personality."

Hank Campbell, who set up the blog Scientific Blogging, said the study had "too many logical flaws for me to tackle without being insulting". He wrote: "Basically they asked farmers how to get more milk and whatever half the farmers said was the conclusion."

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009."

We found this study interesting for a number of reasons. First, every dairy farmer has an interest in doing whatever is necessary to get the optimum production from his or her cows. This might mean naming them, feeding them treats when they are being milked, waving incense over them or dancing a Seekrit Magical Milk Dance around them. There is already evidence that cows are sensitive animals and there are many studies documenting that stressed animals do not produce as well. The conclusion of the study is not necessarily wrong, it’s simply unsupported in a way that is scientifically defensible.

The first problem here is the assumption that correlation is the same as causation, in other words, the assumption that because two events have a relationship with each other, one must cause the other. For example, Merlin, our rooster, crows in the morning. I get up and go to work in the morning. Most mornings, both are true. I do not get up because Merlin crows, I get up because if I don’t, neither he nor I will have enough to eat, shortly. But someone confusing correlation with causation might assume that I wake up in the morning because Merlin crows, rather than considering other factors, like “dog needing to go out right now,” or "retaining job,” or "Tom booting me out of bed." In the cow study, it is possible that the farmers who named their cows were also more likely to provide a calming milking environment, which could also result in greater yield with or without a name. There are many other factors that might result in greater production.

The second problem is in the model that was used to support the conclusion. The fact that every farmer that names his cows thinks they produce more milk for that reason and will tell you so isn’t proof that they do. Opinions aren’t science. Sometimes, it can be very difficult to conclude, in a scientifically defensible way, things that are fairly obvious.

We can’t swear that our cows like their names well enough to give us more milk (except Priscilla, who picked hers through an animal communicator). But we think the authors of the study are headed in the right direction. We know that cows like to be talked to. We know they are smart and can learn some words, including their names. Happy cows are likely to produce more milk. That’s enough for us to suspect that the authors have a reasonable foundation for asking this question.

Tom looks really silly doing that Seekrit Magical Milk Dance out in the barn and possibly just calling the cows by their names would be more effective. But then again, Tom really likes doing the Seekrit Magical Milk Dance and production may not be the reason he does it at all. It's easy to confuse correlation with causation.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Penny Writes Home

Dear Humans:

Above is a picture of me and my new best friend Bella. In case you forgot, I am the small, dark one, peaking around the pole. Bella was really glad when I arrived, as she was living all by herself. She used to hang out by the fence so she could talk to the cows in the neighbor's field. All that changed when I came. We made friends right away. I hardly even noticed when you left. I'm not sure I even remember who brought me here. What are your names again?

Things are good here. I haven't seen any of those frightening animals they call "cats." The food is delicious, there is lots of grass, a toasty shelter and people are nice to me. I do miss my cousin Annie and I wish I had some more chickens to watch. You probably haven't noticed it, but I think that big black one is maybe a rooster. It has a strange way of looking at the hens. And two of them might be sick. The poor things are laying blue eggs. Annie wrote recently to tell me that she is doing well and living in Appomattox. She has developed an interest in analytical chemistry and is taking courses on-line. She's hoping to patent a process that produces cheese directly from the cow, skipping all those unpleasant intermediate stages having to do with fungi. I knew you'd be pleased to hear that.

How is everything on the farm? How are Mom and Bessie? Before I left, I heard them whispering about someone named "Son of Fat Louie." I had to put my hooves over my ears. I don't want to worry you, but there is a picture of him hanging in the stalls in the red barn. I also heard the name "AI Tech" and then lots of giggling. It's probably none of my business, but you might want to check your phone bill for long distance calls to Ohio. This just can't be good. And do you think it wise to encourage a relationship with someone who has, at least on the face of it, a genetic predisposition for excessive weight gain? I think Bessie is a really bad influence. When no one is looking, she gets all painted up and then looks for ways to get out of the fence. I think she's headed for trouble.

I hope all the horses are okay. The blind ones in the paddock next to us were nice, especially the really old girl who speaks "cow." I don't miss the "minis," though. They were mean to us and called us names through the fence. I told them that one of these days, I am going to grow up to be twice as big as they are, then I am going to come back over there and butt their little equine behinds so hard they won't land until they reach Mecklenburg. I am cow. Hear me roar. The little creeps.

I have observed some troubling developments in the economy lately. The GDP has declined sharply, the unemployment rate is still rising and we appear to be headed into a protracted recession. This is a good time for you to invest in bonds, buy undervalued stocks, keep your money in interest-bearing money market accounts and diversify your portfolio. Also, I think you should buy lots of molasses cookies and send them over, wrapped in plain brown paper and labelled "For Penny Only."

Well, that's about all I can think of for now. I have to go tidy up my resume in case milk prices continue on their present downward slide. I'm thinking about working in the alcoholic beverage industry, which tends to be relatively recession-proof.