Cows recognise 'good' and 'bad' farmers

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For years, farmers have proudly boasted of their ability to recognise each and every cow in their herd. What they did not know was the cows not only recognise them back but also remember whether they have been nice or not.

For years, farmers have proudly boasted of their ability to recognise each and every cow in their herd. What they did not know was the cows not only recognise them back but also remember whether they have been nice or not.

New research, believed to be the first of its kind, investigated whether cows discriminate between human faces. Seven people, men and women, acted as either "good" or "bad" farmers. When the cows pressed a lever in front of a good farmer, it released food. When they hit the other lever, they got nothing.

They were later able to recognise the face of the farmer who gave them the food and go to that man or woman, ignoring the non-rewarder.

Researchers used a bizarre assortment of face masks, including Albert Einstein and Hallowe'en masks, coloured overalls and screens to try to confuse the animals, but found that the Holsteins were able to see through all subterfuge.

When the farmers wore identical masks, the cows were still able to spot the "good" farmer from their clothes and body shape. The cows were unfazed when the researchers stood on chairs to change their height.

"Cows seem able to store information about several cues that identify the person and to switch from one to another depending on which is available," say the researchers who report their findings in the Journal of Applied Animal Science.

The research has implications for animal husbandry, and productivity. Animals are likely to be more settled and productive for familiar handlers than strangers.

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