Music to milk to

Rather than favour the flavour of the day, our cows have grown up on rock music: Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana, The White Stripes. While this has been great for cultivating their musical taste, it dawned on us it probably hasn’t been great for cultivating their calmness, or their milk production.

We built an automated milking shed (AMS) last year to create a milking environment that was more comfortable for the cows. They come in when they feel like it, in groups they naturally want to be in, and even get a brush-down on the way out. But why hadn’t our duty of care extended to their aural well-being?

A few weeks back we remembered a news story from over a decade ago about classical music being first-rate for cows. After a little digging, we uncovered the study, which stated, “Calming music can improve milk yield, probably because it reduces stress.” Stress can curb the release of oxytocin, which is a hormone central to the milk-releasing process. Large herds in the UK were played fast, slow and no music at all for 12 hours a day over nine weeks. Each cow’s milk yield rose 3% a day when exposed to slow music.

Not wanting merely to reach for the international hits, we decided to curate a playlist that was made a little closer to home, from this land. My brother Trent, an audio editor with a music degree, put together a class act of local talent. Leading the charge is Douglas Lilburn’s Aotearoa overture. In his words, “Lilburn was New Zealand’s premier sonic artist. Coming from a background in classical composition, he is credited with expanding ideas of what music is, delving into electroacoustic and designed music later in his career. He is celebrated among universities and academic communities around the world.”

The playlist will form the basis of our own little experiment. We’ll play ‘music to milk to’ over the next two months at a specific time and keep a keen eye on milk yield and somatic cell count (an indicator of milk quality, anecdotally linked to stress levels). We’ll also note how many cows are in the shed when the music is on, to see if they consciously make the decision to be there at that time. The remainder of the day and night, we’ll play the regular rock they’re accustomed to, alternated with radio silence. Hopefully we can get some conclusive evidence around what music they prefer and even what particular tracks take their fancy. We’ve created a playlist on our YouTube channel that you can collaborate on by adding videos.

With our AMS, we can collect a whole range of useful data, as each cow is fitted with a collar, or responder, with a unique number on it. With that, the robot can detect various data associated with that cow, or the milk it produces. It can measure milk yield, somatic cell count, fat and protein. When it comes to the cow it can measure weight, level of activity and body temperature. All this information makes it easier for us to make proactive decisions around animal health. Given that we’re an organic farm, this is hugely valuable, as we don’t simply fix problems with antibiotics.

It’s really important to us that our cows are happy, carefree and free to go about life as they see fit. It will be interesting to see if they vote for New Zealand classical with their data.