Just like you and I, cows display sidedness behaviour. You might have noticed by the way a cow prefers to lie on a particular side, or more stand for milking on one side of a herringbone parlour no matter what you try! Scientifically this is referred to as laterality.
For a cow the right-hand side of the brain handles fear and anxiety; while the left-hand side processes positive emotions and longer-term memories.
This correlation between behaviour and emotional state led Australian researchers to conduct a study forcing cows to choose between their left & right sides. In the study, a person that was foreign to the cows, stood in the middle of a 14-foot wide exit lane. As cows exited the parlour, they had to choose between walking to the left or right of the person.
The indication is that if a cow passed the novel person on the right side, viewing them with their left eye, which is connected to the right brain, that indicated that the cow was more susceptible to stress and anxiety based on known biology. Those cows were more likely to behave anxiously, raise or tuck their tails as they passed, walk more slowly, and pass in a single file line without turning to look at the person. The researchers determined that this group of cows was also more likely to dung and be higher producing cows.
Cows that passed on the left appeared more comfortable passing in pairs rather than one at a time and looking at the person as they passed. The researchers suggested that these behaviours have been consistent and repeatable, but there are still many questions to answer. What may be most pressing is why high-producing cows would tend to display more anxious behaviour? Additionally, are some environmental stressors more telling than others? Can this behaviour be monitored or managed to reduce stress?
Research and time may tell us if we should care if our cows are “lefties” or not. There is much we need to learn more about. Beware that your cows will perform differently depending on how they are managed, just like humans!
Contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org or your local FCG office on how you can improve your cow management from the signals a cow exhibits.