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That Remarkable Cow Communication

Diane Prather
Pipi's Pasture

Last week I wrote about Kitty, the talker cow. Kitty isn’t the only cow around here that “talks” (bawls) — she just talks a lot of the time and is the loudest. Over the years, I’ve noticed quite a lot about the way cows communicate, and it’s remarkable, indeed.

First of all, just like humans, cows have different voices. In fact, their bawls are unique enough that a rancher can often identify a bawling cow from some distance away. Not so with others. Kitty has a recognizable voice, and two other cows here at Pipi’s Pasture do, too.

On top of that, depending on what is going on, a cow’s bawl can range from high-pitched and wild-sounding to a soft moo, no matter her “voice,” and a lot more in between. For example, it is common for calves to join up and run back and forth across the pasture. This gang play activity has some cows feeling quite nervous (I’m not sure why), and one might find them running alongside the calves, bawling wildly, apparently trying to get their calves to stop. It would be interesting to know what the cows are telling the calves.



Then there’s the soft mooing of a cow that has just given birth. Many times, while on a night check of expectant cows in the corral, I have heard the soft, gentle moos of a cow and realized, long before I saw them, that the cow had her calf. Perhaps she was just washing her baby or perhaps he had been up and nursed, but one thing was for sure. The cow was very content, evident by her “talking.” I have always wondered what she was saying.

There are lots of examples of cows communicating by bawling. They bawl when they’re being gathered. Boss cows bawl to let others know to stay away from their hay. And there’s more, but perhaps most intriguing is the way they communicate without bawling — or do we not hear it? Take my brother Duane’s cattle, for example. In the summer, they pasture over quite a large area not far from the house. They have access to the corrals and barn at all times, but the gates leading to the hay meadows are kept closed until fall, when the cattle use the meadows for pasture.

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Sometimes the cows, calves, and bulls visit the corral and barn area, bedding down in the shade, but they leave for summer pasture again the next day. However, about this time of year, Duane notices that one cow and her calf will sometimes come up alone, stay awhile, and leave again. A few days later it will be another cow. He theorizes that they are checking out the gate that leads to the meadows. If it is closed, they go back to join the other cattle. However, if it happens be open, the cow returns with others, and they go through the gate into the meadow.

This happens year after year, too consistent to be a “fluke.” So I’ve wondered: how is the checker cow chosen? How does she let the others know the gate is open — by just starting off again?

It’s remarkable.


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