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If Cows Could Talk


You don’t have to look much further than a nursery rhyme to know that a cow says “moo.” But what if we told you different types of moos could actually be translated into thoughts, wants, and needs that humans can understand?

University of Missouri cattle geneticist Jared Decker explained to NPR’s Kristofor Husted that, although there is no way to tell exactly what the animals are trying to say, cows use different pitches and volumes of moos to signal different meanings, whether they are communicating with humans or each other.

“I can’t translate cow moos into English,” Decker said said. “But there are certain times when you can tell when the cattle are communicating with one another.”

Cows’ communications are often relatable to us humans. They use certain frequencies to signal hunger, loneliness, or stress. For instance, if a cow is too hot or stuck in a fence, Decker said he realized the cows let out recurrent high-pitched moos.

Other moos are more specific to farm life, such as a need to be milked or find a lost calf. According to NPR, researcher Monica Padilla de la Torre found that when mother cows and their calves were separated, their calls were louder with a high pitch, compared to the lower pitched calls when they were close by. De la Torre said this distinction gives her team the impression that mother cows and their calves can identify each other’s calls.

Cattle even have a distinguishable mating call.

“It’s when something’s out of the ordinary that they need to moo,” Decker told NPR. “It’s ‘ I’m hungry, farmer come feed me.’ It’s ‘my baby’s not near me, let me find my baby calf.’ It’s … ‘let’s make a baby calf.’ ”

Tori Bilcik

Tori is a senior journalism major at Emerson College and a firm believer that a handful (or three) of cheese can instantly improve any dish. When she’s not scouring the artisan cheese aisle at Roche Brothers for wheels and wedges she can’t afford, she’s probably drinking tea, eating cheap pizza, or listening to sad emo punk music.