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Researchers: Hormone makes for happier cows that produce healthier milk

We need calcium for strong bones and teeth, for healthy muscles, and for improved blood clotting. It turns out that cows have the same needs. Calcium is the main reason most of us drink milk past childhood. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have shown that injecting cows with serotonin, the happy hormone for cows and humans alike, can directly benefit both cows and the people who drink their milk, according to Quartz.

We don’t really know if cows are happy, it turns out. Studies have shown that mistreated cows produce less milk, but it’s hard to tell if cows that are not mistreated are happy. What is clear, though, is that the strain of modern milk production is tough on cows.

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“With the rise of factory farming, milk is now a most unnatural operation,” Quartz quoted Modern Farmer. “The modern dairy farm can have hundreds, even thousands of cows. Today’s average dairy cow produces six to seven times as much milk as she did a century ago. Cows spend their lives being constantly impregnated in order to produce milk … and, after roughly three or four years, their production slackens and they are sold off for hamburger meat.”

Researchers have found that 5 to 10 percent of U.S. dairy cows have low calcium, which can result in a range of health problems and in lower milk production. The physiological stress placed on dairy cows is a suspected a causal factor in low calcium levels.

The Wisconsin researchers theorized that regular serotonin injections could reduce some of the effects of stress. Serotonin affects brain chemistry in a way that makes people “feel better” and likely that could work with cows as well.

The 24 cows treated with the course of serotonin injections, half Jersey and half Holstein, all had higher calcium in their blood after the treatment, and the Jersey cows had higher calcium levels in their milk. Although milk production levels didn’t increase and there was no change in their diet, the milk they produced was healthier.

In past experiments with cows, people have played relaxing music and read Shakespeare to de-stress them (hopefully not Macbeth). In each case, milk production went up. Perhaps a combination of music, reading, and happy hormone injections might raise milk production and the nutritional content of the milk as well. More studies are necessary to replicate and confirm the Wisconsin findings and to measure the effect of serotonin treatments on larger and more varied herds.