Dairy cow

Coffee-curious cows reveal potential for olfactory environmental enrichment

Take-home message: Cows and heifers can distinguish between complex odours - especially coffee - which could have implications for adapting and enriching their environments.

A surprising love of coffee could be used to help enrich the environments cattle are kept in.

Scientists discovered that cows and heifers are able to distinguish between complex odours. What’s more, they show greater interest for certain odours - particularly coffee.

In a study to investigate the ways sense of smell can influence behaviour, researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark wanted to discover if there was unexploited potential for using odours in cattle management.

Using a test developed for tests in rodents (an Habituation/Dishabituation test), the scientists tested 10 cows and 13 heifers with three different odours: orange juice, coffee, and tap water as an odourless control.

The test was carried out on individual animals in their home pen, and consisted of each odour being presented in a bucket twice in a row for two minutes, with a pause of two minutes. 

Following a second two-minute pause, the animal was presented with a new odour, with order of odour presentation balanced among animals. 

The researchers recorded the amount of time the animal sniffed the test bucket, as well as the occurrence of any licking or biting.

The test found that all animals sniffed a bucket less when they were presented with it for a second time, but when a new odour was given to them sniffing increased.

All of the animals sniffed coffee and orange longer than water, and they all sniffed coffee longer than orange.

Licking and biting behaviour only occurred when presented with coffee or orange (13 our of 23 animals for both samples.

“The test showed that cows and heifers were able to distinguish between different complex odours (coffee and orange juice), and that the animals showed increased interest for one of the odours (coffee),” the researchers wrote.

“This is the first example of a Habituation/Dishabituation test being adapted for and applied to cattle. 

“The test may require further development, but represents the first steps towards exploring the possibility of using odours when adapting or enriching the environment in which we keep cattle.”

Taken from: Development of test for determining olfactory investigation of complex odours in cattle
Authors: Maria Vilain Rørvang, Margit Bak Jensen, Birte Lindstrøm Nielsen