SCIENCE
09/29/2014 11:56 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2014

Cowbells Make Cows Miserable, Swiss Study Suggests

What's a cow without a cowbell? Probably a happier cow.

That's the obvious implication of a new study conducted at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The study showed that the large bells that many Swiss cows sport around their necks on ceremonial occasions may actually harm their hearing and interfere with their feeding habits.

For the study, researchers placed 12-pound bells around the necks of more than 100 cows at 25 farms across Switzerland. In a series of experiments, the scientists observed the cows' activity, heart rates, head movements, and feeding behavior. Then they exposed the cows to loud noises and observed their reactions.

What did they find? After wearing the bells, some of the cows became unresponsive to sound--perhaps not such a big surprise, since the bells' sound was measured at 113 decibels, or almost 30 decibels above noise levels that can cause hearing damage in humans. The finding suggests that many cows that wear bells may have been deafened by them.

"If you were to put this in a human context, it's just like having a pneumatic drill pounding in your ears," study co-author Edna Hillman, an agricultural scientist at the institute, told the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (see video above).

The bell-wearing cows in the study also chewed less and ate for shorter durations than cows without bells.

In response to the findings, the researchers suggested that it might make sense for cows to be fitted not with bells but with GPS devices.

“In this IT age we could replace the bell with a microchip and the farmer could then locate his cattle using a smartphone,” Hillman told Swiss newspaper Schweiz am Sonntag.

But the GPS idea was met with derision by some.

“They can’t be serious,” Jacques Bourgeois, director of the Swiss Countryside Union said, according to the Swiss newspaper The Local. “It’s part of our culture, our traditions and it contributes to the beauty of our alpine areas."

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