Cow herd behavior is fodder for complex systems analysis

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The image of grazing cows in a field has long conjured up a romantic nostalgia about a relaxed pace of rural life. With closer inspection, however, researchers have recognized that what appears to be a randomly dispersed herd peacefully eating grass is in fact a complex system of individuals in a group facing differing tensions. A team of mathematicians and a biologist has now built a mathematical model that incorporates a cost function to behavior in such a herd to understand the dynamics of such systems.


Complex systems research looks at how systems display behaviors beyond those capable from individual components in isolation. This rapidly emerging field can be used to elucidate phenomena observed in many other disciplines including biology, medicine, engineering, physics and economics.

“Complex systems science seeks to understand not just the isolated components of a given , but how the individual components interact to produce ’emergent’ behaviour,” said Erik Bollt, director of the Clarkson Center for Complex Systems Science and a professor of mathematics and of electrical and computer engineering.

Bollt conducted the work with his team, lead-authored by post-doctoral fellow Kelum Gajamannage, which was reported this week in the journal Chaos.

“Cows grazing in a herd is an interesting example of a complex system,” said Bollt. “An individual cow performs three major activities throughout an ordinary day. It eats, it stands while it carries out some digestive processes, and then it lies down to rest.”

While this process seems simple enough, there is also a balancing of group dynamics at work.

“Cows move and eat in herds to protect themselves from predators,” said Bollt. “But since they eat at varying speeds, the herd can move on…

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