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I have a confession to make: I don’t like country music. In fact, I can’t stand country music. This is relevant because a vast majority of the farms I visit play this type of music incessantly. I’ve noticed that most barn radios are connected to the lighting system, so whenever the lights are on, Garth or Reba is pouring his/her heart out, much to my displeasure. Most dairy farms have electricity running in the milking parlour around the clock, so even when the lights are off and it’s not milking time, the sad, sad tales of lost girlfriends, the drinking blues, and the good ol’ days fill the otherwise quiet aisles.

One special exception to this rule is a particular dairy client of mine. A grazing dairy with mostly Holsteins and Holstein-crosses, where the cows are on pasture all year and not fed corn or other concentrated, high carbohydrate grains, this operation plays classical music. And it’s music to my ears.

I find it extremely relaxing to stroll into this dairy, no matter if it is to pregnancy check their cows or repair a prolapsed uterus. Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms are there to greet me and help out when a particular cow is ornery or a calving just isn’t going well. When asked why they opt to play classical rather than the seemingly standard country music, the dairy farmers just shrug and say they just like classic music better. Me too.

>Interestingly, it appears cows may have musical preferences as well. Studies have shown that musical selections have an impact on cow behavior in the milking parlour. One study conducted in 1996 assessed the impact of music on cows’ behavior in a dairy with an automated milking system (AMS), in which the cows herd themselves to the milking machines. This study showed that when music was played specifically during the milking period for a period of a few months, more cows showed up to the AMS than when music wasn’t played at all. In other words, music encouraged more cows to be ready to milk than no music. The abstract of this study does not mention what type of music was played and in my mind, indicates behavior similar to Pavlov’s famous dogs that were trained to salivate at the ring of a bell. These cows associated music with milking and this influenced their physiology.

Even more interesting is a study done in 2001 that showed the tempo of music affects milk production in dairy cows. In this study, slow tempo music, like Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water, increased milk production by 3 percent. In contrast, harsher, faster music had no effect on milk production. The theory behind this physiologic response is that faster music increases the cow’s stress level, and increased stress has been repeatedly shown to negatively impact milk production. Other studies have shown that yelling at cows and aggressive herding dogs decrease milk production.

Although this study did not show a decrease in milk production due to fast music, the increase in milk with slower music is significant in my mind. A 3 percent increase in milk over a year is an easy financial gain for the dairy farm — no investment needed, just change your radio station to "easy listening" or "smooth jazz."

Admittedly, this study didn’t prove that overall, country music is bad for cows, but it does suggest that fast country music is bad for cows. Perhaps I should simply recommend soothing ocean waves or a soundtrack of the pitter-patter of raindrops in the Amazon to all my dairy clients?

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: Composite; Dudarev Mikhail and Milkovasa / via Shutterstock

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