Your cows don’t talk, but they can be communicating some very important messages. Are you listening? The way cows behave can tell us a lot about how the cattle are handled, how comfortable their facilities are and if management is causing or reducing stress. It’s easy to write off a cow’s opinion since college-trained people have scientifically taken care of all her nutritional and housing needs. Cow-handling skills are not considered because the cow is confined in a barn and we can make her go where we want. Here are some reasons why we need to pay attention to our cows’ behavior.

The public expects us to take good care of our animals. In the November election, the Arizona public voted by 61 percent to prohibit veal crates for calves and gestation crates for breeding pigs. Ben and Jerry’s announced they would only buy its eggs from producers who use certified-humane, cage-free methods. Would your farm qualify if milk companies decided they would only purchase milk from “certified-humane” dairy farms? Another reason is that while milk per cow goes up every year, the health of our cows is no better and may be going downhill. Lameness is just one example of health that seems to have gotten worse.

But the most important reason to listen to your cows is the potential for increased profit. “Happy” cows do make more money, and I will cite studies that demonstrate that good handling, facilities and management can make a difference. It is important to remember that just because a cow gives a lot of milk does not mean she is comfortable and healthy. Cows have their own “culture” and see or perceive the world differently than people do. To “listen” to cattle, we need to appreciate why what looks like a “dumb stunt” to us is perfectly natural to a cow.

How does a cow see her world? She sees a lot more because her eyes are on the side of her head, so she can see everything except what’s directly behind her. But with poor depth perception, she doesn’t see her world as well as we do.

In addition, she lacks the vertical vision we have, and she really can’t see where to put her feet unless she puts her head down. This is why cows always “jump” over the gutter. Cattle can hear better than people in both volume and range, and they really don’t appreciate our hollering. In fact, a person hollering can be as stressful as hitting a cow with a hot-shot. Cattle also are prey animals (feel safe in a group). They will circle or put their head in a corner when threatened, and they prefer to follow one another. Cattle are creatures of habit, and it takes them a while to sort out anything new.


One more important point, cows have their own social order and when moving animals, frequently the subordinate cattle will be last. Sounds reasonable, but how many times do we try to make the little heifer push the boss cow in front of her. We end up with the heifer running over us to get away. I am sure she is thinking how can people be so dumb as to ask her to push the boss cow. It’s much easier to push the 200-pound person!

Do good cow-handling skills pay? Seabrook found that when cows were handled aversively (in a way stressful to the cows), milk was reduced 1,460 pounds per year, cows took twice as long to enter the parlor and defecated six times more often. Breuer and co-workers found that heifers hit or rushed into a parlor produced 3 pounds less milk per day, lost 30 pounds more weight and experienced more lameness than cows treated more calmly.

In talking with Dr. J Shearer, a bovine foot specialist, he believes that when cows are rushed to the holding area they suffer more lameness. Hemsworth found the percentage of cows approaching within 3 meters or about 10 feet of an unfamiliar person was positively correlated with conception rate to first service. Think back on farms you have visited; some cows came right up to you and tried to eat your shirt and at other farms, the cows scattered like birds. What does that tell how about how they have been handled?

In summary, I think there are three kinds of cattle people: a few are natural-born cattle people, some people are not cattle people and should not work around cattle, and most of us are people who can learn to be good cattle people. Do you provide training for your staff so they can learn to handle cattle and be “good” cattle people?

Facilities and management can also play an important role in keeping the cow comfortable and productive. In work done with pre-fresh and early lactation first-calf heifers, milk production was up 6.5 pounds per day in the first 80 days when stocked at 80 percent capacity versus 120 percent capacity. Lameness was 24 percent versus 11 percent in one survey when the stall surfaces were mattresses versus sand. Interestingly, lame cows on mattresses spend more time standing in the freestalls. They spend two hours standing if on sand; four hours if moderately lame on mattresses, and six hours standing if on mattresses and severely lame.

Researchers speculated that fear of slipping or difficulty in rising is what extended the standing times on mattresses. Lying time is very important since there is a 20 to 50 percent increase in udder blood flow in lying cows and 400 to 500 pounds of blood must flow through the udder for each 1 pound of milk produced. A simple management consideration like stall maintenance is important as demonstrated by a study that documented 10 minutes less lying time for each centimeter less of bedding depth. It has shown regrouping cows can increase cow interaction before a stable hierarchy is achieved, and this can reduce milk production 2 to 5 percent for a short period of time. A newly regrouped cow will be involved in 10 interactions per hour immediately after a move, twice as many as other cows in the group.

Facilities and management summary: While it may sound obvious, comfortable cows are healthier and more productive. When you have a lot of “dumb” cows that want to lie in the alley, it may be time to measure the size and review the management of your freestalls. If your cows walk slowly and frequently fall down, maybe your floors need re-grooving. Don’t get in your cows’ way by overstocking or having cows spend too much time in lock-ups or holding pens, and make sure feed is easy to reach. Yes, the cow can reach a long way with her tongue, but she could also have her fill of feed and be resting, ruminating and making milk in a freestall instead of stretching for one more little bite.

Understanding cow behavior can be good for cows and good for people, and it doesn’t cost very much in time or money. But it does take a deliberate effort to make sure your staff is practicing good cow-handling and your facilities are as comfortable as possible.

Train your staff in good cow handling, don’t tolerate abusive behavior and reward those who are “good” with cattle. Good people can compensate for poor facilities, but good facilities can never compensate for bad people behavior. Review your facilities for weak links since good facilities will allow your staff and cows to do their best job possible for you. There are no “free lunches,” but learning to listen to your cows comes pretty close. PD

References omitted but are available upon request.