Leaks of pictures and videos depicting poor animal handling practices in the dairy industry in recent years have led to growing consumer distrust with the treatment of livestock. Training on proper cattle moving and handling techniques is essential to ensure instances like that do not happen on your farm.

Ben Bartlett, DVM and low-stress handling and grazing specialist, held a webinar recently for the National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program entitled “Dairy Stockmanship Skills for Low-Stress Handling.” In the presentation, he explained how understanding cattle behavior is critical for good stockmanship and is the basis for how dairy farmers should treat their animals.

All dairy farmers and handlers should consider these factors as a general guideline of humane handling to help their livestock optimize production.

1. Anatomy

A cow’s physical anatomy can limit them, which they understand. For example, cattle have a wide range of vision horizontally (300 degrees to 340 degrees), but they can only see 60 degrees vertically. This would be similar to a person covering the lower half of their vision. Therefore, going downhill or trying to get out of a trailer is a bigger deal to cows than it is to people. This is why, when on a ranch or in the wild, there are cow paths – the first cow looks down to see where it is going while the rest just follow the one in front of them.

Cattle have phenomenal hearing with the ability to detect noises at lower volumes with a larger frequency range than humans. However, they have a poor ability to locate where the sound is coming from. Humans can locate the source of a noise to a range of 5 degrees, whereas cows can only locate the source to a range of 30 degrees.


Not knowing where the sound is coming from is frightening for the cows and can make for an undesirable memory of that situation or place. To make the most of this understanding, keep noise to a minimum in all situations.

2. Instinct

A cow’s instincts play a large part in her reaction to certain situations, no matter how she was raised. The clearest example of this is predator versus prey. A cow identifies something as a predator based off of its eyes – round and at the front of the face rather than on the sides. This immediately places humans into the predator category.

Understanding the cow’s flight zone is essential to handling them. Around a cow, there are three zones –flight, fight or freeze – that are the foundation for how they react to any predator based on how close they are. The sizes of these zones vary depending on the speed and angle at which the predator is approaching, the surrounding environment and conditions, and the cow’s previous experiences.

If anything unfamiliar enters the flight zone, it will spook a cow. As prey, a cow’s first instinct is to run with the herd. She will not stop to figure out what is spooking her because that is a good way to become lunch. By running with the herd, there is a higher probability the individual will avoid being caught. A cow does not need to outrun the predator – just the slowest cow in the herd.

Dairymen and women can use this to their advantage. To move the cows, a person merely needs to walk slowly into the cows’ flight zone. This will get the herd moving without sending them into a total panic. Then, the person can just walk back and forth behind or alongside the herd to maintain movement. This way, he or she is not always in the blind spot and the cows will be less anxious.

In herds, cattle have a social hierarchy. The bigger cows get what they want and will push the smaller ones out of the way to get it. So when walking the herd down the alleys, the smaller cows will be more inclined to plow over the human than to attempt to push the stronger ones out of the way. Walking where they all can see the person makes it easier since no cow in the herd feels the need to push another cow as they are all motivated to move forward.

3. Experience

Bartlett emphasized the need to make sure the first impression is a great one. Cows have an incredible memory; they will remember that first contact with the herdsmen or the milkers, and that will be the basis for their actions every subsequent time. If the first experience is frightening, the cow has a 100 percent chance of being nervous the next time. If they have a positive experience the first time but get startled the second, there is a 50 percent chance they will be scared the third time. The percentages get smaller and smaller with each positive experience.

Cows are creatures of habit. They like solid routines with the same experience each time. Anything new is upsetting and needs to be avoided at all costs. Granted, sometimes it is impossible to avoid new experiences. Proceeding slowly and remaining patient is the best thing to do at a time like that.

Bovines in general have very powerful observational skills, as this is necessary for a prey animal to survive in the wild. This means that they can sense aggressions and tension very well. Therefore, employees need to remain calm and positive to keep the cows happy and relaxed. It also means that cattle need to be approached with confidence. They are large animals and need respect, but you are the predator, and if you are tense, they will be too.

While some of these may seem obvious, it is important to keep in mind that not all employees are aware and may need training in proper dairy stockmanship. These are learned skills and will take practice. However, in the end, it is worth it. As Bartlett said, proper dairy stockmanship will make dairy handling “enjoyable, safer, [and] it’s going to increase your profitability.”  end mark

Annabelle Day is a student at Jerome High School in Jerome, Idaho.

This webinar was the first of 10 webinars released by the National Dairy FARM Program to highlight changes with the plan’s version 3.0. Learn more at the FARM website.