Is This a Happy Cow?

By now you must have seen the picture of a cow wearing a virtual reality headset. If not in 2019 when the Ministry of Agriculture and Food in Russia first came up with the idea, then more recently this year, when a Turkish farmer, inspired by the Russians, strapped two virtual reality headsets to one of his cows.

Beyond the always entertaining image of an animal doing a thing that humans are supposed to do (it thinks it’s people!) the reason the cows are wearing VR headsets is that Russia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food and in turn Turkish farmer Izzet Kocak believe that they will make the cows produce more milk, which results in more profit.

Happy cows produce more milk that’s more nutritious, so the theory here is that a cow that’s constrained in a cold dark barn might be happier if it thinks it’s out on some green and sunny pasture where it’s free to roam. According to The Sun, Russia’s agriculture ministry said that it recorded a decrease in anxiety in cows wearing the headsets and that Kocak’s cows wearing the headset saw their output increase from 22 to 27 liters a day. 

I have spent a lot of time in virtual reality, and the theory seems ridiculous to me. There are many things to like about VR. There are some cool games. Porn is an obvious application that’s gaining traction. It has potential. But I’ve never had a VR experience I would describe as relaxing or even comfortable. VR often causes nausea (mostly because of the “locomotion problem”), and the headset itself is heavy and stuffy. Being in a VR headset for hours would make me miserable, but I’m neither a cow or a veterinarian, so I asked five experts: Is this a happy cow, and can VR make it produce more milk?

“In many cases I think the goggles would actually cause some stress and discomfort in cattle,” Jason Banta, an associate professor and Extension beef cattle specialist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Overton, said in an email. “I would not encourage any farmers to try it.”

“I think it’s very unlikely that applying virtual reality to cows as described (and shown using two headsets strapped to the cow’s head) would be beneficial,” Mia Cobb, a scientist who researches the welfare of animals at The University of Melbourne, told me. 

Like all the experts I talked to, Banta was skeptical of the “results” claimed by Russia’s agriculture ministry, and said the impact of VR on cows could only be evaluated with a deeper study with more controls.

“Based on the information provided in the article, it appears that this is only observational data collected by one dairy producer on a small population of animals that may not have any scientific value,” Adrian Barragan, an assistant clinical professor at PennState and an expert on dairy cattle reproduction and cow comfort, said. 

Milk yield, Barragan said, is affected by a variety of factors, including age, lactational stage, diet, water intake, heat abatement management and health status, among many others.

“The hormone that stimulates milk let down [the release of milk from the cow], oxytocin, has been associated with positive mental stages such as happiness and love in humans,” Barragan said. “However, there is no substantial scientific evidence of that in cattle due to the known challenges of measuring affective stages such as pain, fear or happiness in animals.”

In other words, a bigger underlying problem with the viral VR cow is that it’s pretty hard for us to determine what a cow is feeling and seeing, and whether it’s happy.

As the Research Chair in Dairy Cattle Behavior and Welfare at University of Guelph Trevor DeVries told me, first of all, cow vision is quite different than human vision. Their eyes face forward, like ours, but their placement is different, allowing them to see far back for almost 360 degree vision. Convincing VR is stereoscopic, meaning the headset is feeding each eye a slightly different angle on the same image, which your brain uses to calculate depth. It’s the same reason you had to wear those greasy glasses back when Hollywood briefly insisted that 3D movies were a thing. 

Good VR headsets allow users to slightly adjust the distance between those two images (the interpupillary distance) because it’s a little different for anyone, but those headsets don’t have a “cow setting” that moves the images that far apart. 

As you can see in the photographs, Kocak, the Turkish farmer, has strapped two VR headsets to the cow because a single headset isn’t wide enough to cover both eyes. Each of these appear to be a consumer-grade headset, the kind that uses a smartphone as a display that is then modified with lenses in the headset. At best, perhaps these headsets were modified so that each provides a single, separate image that is somehow synchronized to create a stereoscopic image, though this is extremely unlikely, and not what we see in the video. If these headsets are just working as they’re supposed to for humans, that means that the cow is seeing a different, unsynchronized, double image with each eye.

“I would agree that if the two devices are stereoscopic headsets then that configuration would make no sense and result in a very confusing visual experience for the cow,” Sarah Webber, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Melbourne who first wrote about the virtual reality cows in 2019, said. 

The Russians at least appear to be using a headset made to fit the cow’s head, but even then, as DeVries told me, the way cows perceive color and light is also different, so it’s not clear what they would see even if a stereoscopic image was properly presented to them.

A more fundamental and deeply sad problem with the VR cow: Let’s just pretend that Russia’s agriculture ministry and Kocak have really figured out some very complicated issues with virtual reality and cow vision and the cow really did see a perfectly clear image in the headset of a green pasture with motion tracking and everything—would it even know what it’s looking at?

From what we can see of Kocak’s cow, it is confined and under a roof. Many dairy producing cows are kept in continuously housed systems, where food and water is brought to them, meaning that at least an image of a pasture wouldn’t necessarily mean much to them because they wouldn’t know what it is. 

“It’s not known whether cows will perceive a picture of outside as being outside,” DeVries said. “If they had previous experience with pasture, then maybe showing a picture will work, but there are cows that may have never seen a pasture.” 

This is not in judgment of Kocak, who I’m sure is just trying to be a good farmer who is good to his cows and wants to get a little bit more milk, so if he says the headset is working, maybe it’s working. 

It’s very unlikely that the cows are producing more milk because the headset is tricking them into thinking they’re outside and making them happier. He doesn’t have a meaningful sample size or controls, so it could easily be a fluke, but as DeVries hypothesized, it is possible the headsets are making a difference for the simple reason that they are providing more light. 

Cows produce more milk in the spring and summer, when there is more sunlight. That’s when there’s more vegetation to eat, when photosynthesis leads to more sugar in plants, and when cows need more milk to feed calves. A cow’s “lactation curve” peaks when there’s most sunlight, and multiple studies show that keeping the lights on in barns where cows are kept for 16 hours a day increases milk yields. 

It’s possible that the light from a smartphone strapped to a cow’s head is increasing its milk production. It’s extremely unlikely that it’s making the cows happy, but at least it’s something Russia’s agriculture ministry and Kocak are thinking about. 

“It’s wonderful to see that more people are understanding that animal welfare extends to emotional wellbeing and considering new ways to meet animals’ needs,” Cobb said. “People need to be careful when thinking of ways to improve animal welfare that we do what animals need and want, not just impose what we think is good for them. Animal welfare science has many ways to ask animals what they value for a good life. It’s important to be open to new practices and ideas relating to the care of animals, but without robust evidence to support VR for animals like cows is effective, we should exercise caution.”

As Webber told me, if we want cows to be happy, we need to try “user-centered design,” meaning “understanding what the animal really needs and wants, giving the animal a ‘voice’ in the design process, and giving them choice and agency.”

As Webber wrote in 2019, if you want to see technology make an animal happy, it probably looks more like this cow brushing up against an automatic brush:

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