Farm animals are much smarter than you think

Published 2:24 pm Friday, December 15, 2023

I probably was knee high to a grasshopper when I first watched my Daddy hitch up his two mules in order to plow a field for planting cotton on the old Phillips Farm where we sharecropped.

One member of the team was Pat, a mule considerably smaller than his companion but stout and smart like a crow. When Pat knew it was time to be hitched, he would amble over to the rear of a poor man’s barn and lie down in the dormant bermudagrass, refusing to get up until his partner was in the traces, or harness.

Looking back on that now, I wonder if he knew that he had to work extra hard to pull his share of the load and wanted to avoid that stress on his body.

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Animals are much more intelligent and have deeper feelings than we give them credit for. Mules don’t deserve their stereotype of being stubborn and lazy. Most are just the opposite–willing and able to go anywhere and do any job.

Anyone who has farmed or raised and cared for farm animals has stories to tell about incidents that showed their level of intellect to be higher than their stereotyped image. Example: it is a myth that goats will eat anything.

Even scientists are coming around to see this and study it, which is what scientists do best. And, they are finding surprising complexity in the minds of goats, pigs, cows, horses, mules and other livestock.

In Dummerstorf, Germany, there is a Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology. It is one of the world’s leading centers for investigating the minds of farm livestock. The campus looks like a cross between a farm and a research institute. The buildings with humans and the grazing pastures intertwine and, like farmers, the researchers are known to have stepped in piles of poop while walking deep in thought from one building to another.

These scientists are now probing the mental and emotional lives of animals that have lived among and worked with us for thousands of years, yet we humans seem to know little about their cognitive state.

In the past 10 years the scientists have learned that pigs show signs of empathy and are quite smart. Goats, they found, rival dogs in some tests for social intelligence. And–here’s a big one–they learned that cows can be potty trained. Yep, those big, lumbering animals that blankly stare at humans and chew their cuds can be trained to deposit their garden gold in designated spots.

If you’re connected to the equine world, you know that a few horses will make their deposits in the same spot day in and day out without training, but they are forgotten in the scheme of farm life because the other critters are busy putting it on stall walls, dropping it in the aisleway or dribbling it down their legs.

At the German facility, as they have learned about farm animals’ thought processes, they are seeing a greater likeness to humans. There are 700 pigs at the center. In one area is a treadmill with a bright blue button at snout height. Some of the pigs routinely walk onto the treadmill, press the button and go through a walking exercise. A few, however, look at the treadmill but never get onto it. They are the couch potatoes.

Sound familiar?

We know that dogs interpret and react to our feelings. Horses, too. I saw some of our goats respond to my feelings countless times while others, mostly the bucks, could not have cared less.

The research in Germany is important for farmers because it is showing that pigs, cows and goats can be optimistic and caring within their herd, with some goats regularly jumping onto a board that lowers food to the others in the herd without going after the food themselves.

Come to think of it, we humans could use a little more learning about how to be optimistic.

Larry McDermott is a local retired farmer/journalist. Reach him at