Cattle Behavior and Handling
How to Understand Bovine Behaviour
Cattle have a different way of communicating themselves and their intentions than other animals, such as humans, dogs, cats and horses. Most of the time the behaviour of the cow is misinterpreted or misread by the person who is trying to interpret it.
Bovine psychology and behaviour is something that every cattle producer must know in order to own, work around and handle these animals. Understanding bovine behaviour is also important for those who do not understand or who have a fear of cattle, because understanding can allay the reasons for fear and hopefully, will help you to build more respect for these animals.
Read some books on animal behaviour or herding/handling cattle. Books that have been written by people who have studied animal behaviour are the best to start with.
- Often your local bookstores may not have such books, so the best place to buy them is either at an online bookstore such as , or from a college or university bookstore that sells such books for students taking animal care/agricultural-type courses.
- Websites such as Grandin.comand other scientific journals may also be good resources to study up on cattle behaviour. Recent scientific papers like those posted in the Journal of Animal Science are one of the best to look through if you are looking for research papers on cattle behaviour.
Go to a farm or ranch to observe and study actual cattle behaviour.Make sure the animals cannot see or smell you, otherwise they will come up to the fence and stare at you, expecting some form of treat, or run away where you cannot observe them.
- Sometimes, however, them seeing you can be a good thing, and may encourage the animals to perform certain behaviours towards you, be those behaviours good or bad.
Note the behaviour that is being displayed between animals and/or towards you.A cattle herd is set up in hierarchy, with one animal being the boss, progressing all the way down to the one at the bottom. This is also called "pecking order" or "the totem-pole effect," however you want to put it:
- The "alpha" bovine, be it a bull, cow, steer or heifer, will boss the "omega" bovine by either staring directly at it until it moves away, or lower its head (to expose the poll, with the chin tucked in) to head-butt the lower-level animal. If the omega challenges the alpha for leadership, then there will be a head-butting and shoving match until either one wins. The winner will chase or herd the loser around the pen until the loser, the new omega, submits by slightly lowering the head (much like a dog or wolf lowering its head to the alpha male or female), or turning away from the more alpha animal. Often submission behaviours are so subtle that it can be hard for a person unfamiliar with bovine behaviour to see.
- This sort of fighting will occur in two types of situations: new animals enter the herd, or bulls fighting for breeding rights and in defense of their harem.
- Very rarely does fighting between cows, heifers or steers end in death. However, it is more common in bulls, especially between two rivals that are of the same size as the other, or if an older bull feels that the younger bull is a threat that should be dealt with in more ways than trying to get him to submit to the older fellow. This is even more of a risk factor if one of the bulls is horned.
Ask yourself whether the cattle are exhibiting good behaviours or bad ones.
- Good or normal behaviours include:
- Grazing or eating from a feed trough or hay bale
- Curiosity about your presence or something that is different in the corral or pasture (this is where they are watching and sniffing and even licking, if they get the nerve to come close enough to this strange "thing")
- Scratching an itch on a fence, tree or the side of a building
- Tossing their head back over the shoulder (only if flies are bothering them)
- Any other activity that involves licking itself or another friend
- Chewing their cud, be it standing or laying down
- Going to find a place to lie down
- Watching you with an expression of mild to somewhat-intent interest
- Raising and bobbing their heads to smell you, if you've got their attention
- The bull "courting" the cows (sniffing and licking the genital area, attempting to mount, etc.)
- Bad or threatening behaviours include (mostly exhibited by an over-protective bull or mother cow):
- Wrinkling of the muzzle much like a dog (it's less obvious than what you would see in a dog, but if you look close enough [at a safe distance, mind you] you may be able to see it)
- Glaring or intently staring or fixation on you or a predator
- Pawing the ground
- Showing their side
- Growling (sounds something like a low "RRrrrruuumph!" Rrrruummph!")
- Shaking or tossing of the head
- Charging towards you and stopping short (definitely a challenge and a threat)
- Non-threatening behaviours that mean that the animal is anything but calm and relaxed include:
- Head up, ears perked forward means alert, very nervous, tense, and a little scared and unsure.
- Stilting, high-stepping walk, still staring at you in the same manner as previously mentioned means the animal is alert and on the verge of flight because of fear.
- Showing the whites of the eyes - could mean that the animal is unsure, nervous, tense, or slightly fearful
- Mad switching of the tail (this indicates intense anxiety, except when calves are suckling from momma or the flies are really bugging the cattle).
- Startling at a sudden movement, shying away from something, etc. all indicates tension, insecurity and fear.
- Stampede only results if the fear they feel is overwhelming and they need to get away from it as fast as possible. Because cattle are prey animals, flight and keeping with the herd is their best (but not the only) defense mechanism against the offending stimulus.
- Good or normal behaviours include:
Consider the frame of mind the cattle might be in.Are they nervous, calm, excited, agitated, unsure or frightened? See the above points for indicators.
- An important thing to remember is that, like all animals, cattle are sensitive to whatyourfeelings are. If you are tense, frustrated, scared, unsure or excited, then they will mirror those feelings by acting in the same way or reacting to your feelings. Cattle will always act nervous, fearful and unsure whenever they meet someone new, but if you spend enough time with them (at least 30 minutes) and remain calm and relaxed, then they will also be calm and relax.
Familiarize yourself with such behaviours, and try to memorize them for future reference. Memorizing bovine behaviour and psychology will help you improve your practices in working with cattle and, if you are afflicted with bovinophobia, help work through your fears.
QuestionWe have some very friendly calves/steers, they are always licking and pushing me with their heads, a few even came close to "mounting" me. Any clue as to why they might do this?Top AnswererThey are doing this because you are letting them be overly friendly. You have no boundaries or discipline established with them, which needs to start NOW. Otherwise, when they're a lot bigger and stronger, this isn't going to be "cute" anymore, and they WILL hurt you. You have to find a way to get them to learn to not do this to you, and moving away is not going to help. You will need to get a little "mean" with them to get the point across that you are not to be treated like their plaything. This will involve a bit of pushing, a lot of saying "No!" and a lot of time and patience on your part. Just remember, these tiny 60 lb calves are going to grow into 1200 lb beasts in only a couple of years.Thanks!
QuestionWhat is wrong with a cow when they stand very still with their head to the ground for a long period of time?Top AnswererIt's not a good sign. Depression comes with anything from pneumonia to acute poisoning. Contact your veterinarian immediately.Thanks!
QuestionWhy do cows lick their calves?Top AnswererTo form a bond with their young and to groom them. Cattle groom each other when they're best pals in the herd, regardless of age.Thanks!
QuestionOur bull goes down on his front legs like bowing or submissive, but this is after he is corrected. Are we misreading his behavior?Top AnswererI believe you are. This doesn't sound like submissive behavior. Usually this "bowing" behavior is accompanied by him rubbing his head and neck on the ground to make himself appear more masculine with more dirt on him. I think he's more challenging you than acting submissive. Watch for other challenging bull behaviors like shaking his head, showing his side (arching his neck as he does so), pawing the ground, etc. The best show of submission is when he turns away and shows his rear to you and walks away from you.Thanks!
QuestionI got a cow and it headbutts my dog. How can I stop this?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerKeep the dog tied up on a leash away from the cow, or just keep the dog in the house. The cow is just doing what comes naturally to her when something threatening like a dog is harassing her. She will stop head-butting and attempting to trample the dog when you've got control of the dog.Thanks!
QuestionI have observed unusually aggressive behavior among our cattle in the past few months. Did not see the incidents, but lost 2 cows due to severe physical injuries. What might be the reason for this behavior?Top AnswererThere's a distinct possibility that they might be harassed by a roving neighborhood dog pack. Normally cattle wouldn't be so suddenly aggressive and antsy if they are not being bothered by dogs, or even cattle thieves. But either is a possibility that you must watch out for, especially because you lost two animals already to severe injuries. Even in play, cattle would never get so rough that one would die. Keep an eye out, put up cameras, hire a night watchmen, call the local authorities, and talk to other farmers in your area if they're also noticing their herds acting up strangely. Earthquakes can also cause animals to act out in distress, if dogs and thieves are not a problem.Thanks!
QuestionI have been breaking my calf, and every time I come near him he starts scratching his head on my legs. What does it mean?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerThis may seem like a playful act now, but when he's bigger he will easily push you over and hurt you. He's probably getting you to move as he does this, which is giving him confidence that he has dominance over you. Correct him (pop the lead shank) every time he tries to do that to you. Move away from his head and into his shoulder to get him to move. Soon he'll figure out that he needs to find another place to scratch his head on.Thanks!
QuestionWhy do cows fight a cow after she gives birth to a calf?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerThis comes down to hormones. Those cows might think that calf is theirs and want to take it away from her. Separate the new pair to allow them peace and quiet and to mother-up without the commotion.Thanks!
QuestionShould I be concerned if my cattle are running with their tails held high?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerHow frequently are you cattle doing this? If often, there may be cause for concern. A rogue bull might be stirring up the herd or dogs or other wildlife may be harassing your animals. If it's only an occasional phenomenon, your cattle might just be playful. Cattle will run like that when they feel good or when there's a change of weather that invigorates them.Thanks!
QuestionI have a steer cow that is head-butting my new mom heifer, and won't let near the calf. What do I do?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerThere's no such thing as a "steer cow". If it's a steer, as in a castrated male, then it's just a steer. Separate steer from the pair. Hormones would be a big player, and the fact that the steer doesn't know that this new calf is actually not a threat and a part of his herd, would also be why he's probably trying to "protect" the heifer from this new threat. Separating the steer from the heifer-calf pair will solve this problem. Keep them separated for a couple of weeks or so, but not so that the steer can't sniff noses with the heifer through the fence.Thanks!
What does it mean if a bull breaks out of his pen whenever he sees me and follows me around?
Why did a steer charge when I was driving a milk cow to the barn? It was walking toward me and I began to run because I was uncomfortable.
- Keep on the other side of the fence where the cattle are. This may minimize the distractions you cause or any potential harm that may come if one of the animals are or will be aggressive towards you.
- Ask the owner of the cattle you wish to observe or work with to avoid any potential confusion or confrontations. Be polite and clearly explain your intentions.
- If you have cattle of your own or if you have family or friends that have cattle, use them as a basis to study bovine behaviour.
- Don't read the books or journals that you bought or downloaded from the internet only once. Read them as many times as necessary until you've memorized every detail that has been mentioned. Make notes as you go, as prompts to remind yourself when you're "out in the field".
- Do not tease nor instigate any negative behaviour from these animals. Doing so could lead to injury to yourself or worse.
- Be cautious around bulls and cows with young calves. Both types of animals can be potentially dangerous, especially towards a human they don't know nor trust.
Video: Dairy Cow Behaviour
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