Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. Does it matter if I give a name to you?

According to the Daily Mail yesterday scientists have found that giving cows individual names boosts milk yields. This extravagant and utterly unsubstantiated claim has been repeated in numerous places including the BBC and Scientific American (who should know better).

The study involved a postal survey of dairy managers. The farmers were asked about the factors that they thought could affect the relationship between cows and humans. Farmers who thought giving cows names was important also reported higher milk yields.

Contrary to the Mail’s assertion the study did not show that “that naming cows encourages farmers to treat them as individuals, cutting stress levels and boosting milk yield”. (This was a conjecture by the researchers to explain their findings) It shows an association between farmers’ beliefs and their reported milk yield.

There are broader issues here about the misuse and misreporting of science in the popular media. But imagine for a moment that further studies did show that naming cows led to higher milk yields. Would that have any ethical significance?

The most plausible reason why giving cows names might lead them to produce more milk is that such treatment may be part of a general approach towards cows that is more considerate of cow wellbeing. Stressed, unhappy cows are less likely to produce large amounts of milk.*

If these research results were disseminated it could lead to improvements in the treatment of dairy cows. Those who are concerned about animal welfare would surely be happy. But does it matter that the reason that cow welfare has been advanced is in order to maximise milk production (and profit)?

This might be important for two reasons. Firstly, on some views of morality the intentions of someone, and the way in which they view others is relevant to how we judge their actions. Imagine a plantation owner who treats his slaves abominably. We present him with research that shows that if he treats the slaves better they will be more productive in the fields, and less likely to run away. Although we may be pleased if this leads the plantation owner to treat his slaves better, we may still be inclined to judge him harshly because he seems only to care about the slaves’ wellbeing instrumentally – insofar as it affects his bottom line.

Secondly we may worry that this reason for treating animals better is fragile. Imagine that further research were presented to the slave owner demonstrating that if he treats his slaves even worse than he does at present he could improve his profits. If he administers hormone treatments and stimulants to them they will be able to harvest more sugar cane (though the drugs will have significant side effects on the slaves). Similarly further research might develop ways to increase milk yields without the need to improve cow welfare.

But there is another possible benefit of naming cows. For us to act morally towards others we have to consider the world from their point of view. To treat other creatures, including animals, as we ought, requires an act of moral imagination. It may be that giving a cow a name is the first step towards imagining their experience and their interests. Farmers may think twice about making Daisy suffer for the sake of an extra pint of milk.

*Higher milk yields are not straightforwardly related to cow wellbeing. Cows that produce large amounts of milk are more likely to develop engorged, painful and infected udders (mastitis)

Links

Bertenshaw C, Rowlinson P. Exploring Stock Managers' Perceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association with Milk Production Anthrozoos 2009; 22 (1): 59-69 28/01/09

Why Daisy and Clover are happier: Cows given names are more content and more productive, scientists claim Daily Mail 28/01/09

Cows with names make more milk Scientific American 28/01/09

Cows find milky way to happiness BBC 27/1/09

Pull the udder one? Calling cows names 'makes them produce more milk' Guardian 28/01/09

Want More Milk? Name Your Cow, Says Study – And They're Serious Scientific Blogging 28/01/09

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2 Responses to Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. Does it matter if I give a name to you?

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    What is the ethical significance of naming a cow when, down the road, you expect to slaughter it and eat some of it? If naming something individualizes it, does killing a named animal desensitize a person’s reluctance to kill in general?

  • Hank says:

    “This extravagant and utterly unsubstantiated claim”

    Didn’t you mean UDDERLY? 🙂

    And thanks for not lumping us in with Scientific American or the BBC. Those guys gave up ‘knowing better’ a long time ago.

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