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Understanding Cattle Behavior - Part 1 - Development of Behavior


As a prey species, cattle have an inherent fear of unfamiliar objects, situations, smells, sudden movements and noises. As well they can experience fearfulness in situations where they are solitary or isolated. Understanding this is critical to managing them in a low stress manner

It is important for every cattle owner to understand cattle behavior (what cattle do) and why they do what they do. It will not only aide us in using safer and more effective cattle handling techniques, it can also improve our overall herd living quality as we accommodate the natural tendencies inherent in cattle relative to their five body senses, the various ways stock communicate with each other and their keepers and behavioral problems arising from clashes with their environment.

Development of Behavior

The behavior of cattle is determined by instinct, sensory perception and experience. Instinctual behaviors refer to those that the cow is naturally motivated to perform. Sensory behaviors are those that are the result of something heard/seen/smelt/felt in the environment. Examples of these different types of behavior include:

● Instinct or innate, fully developed and complete at first appearance; suckling and standing at birth, those rhythmical behaviors fundamental to the life process (such as breathing and defecation) and freezing or baulking in response to an unfamiliar noise or object.

Baulking is when the animal flinches and ceases movement, that is, it is resisting what it is being led to do.

● Conditioned learning or learning by experience, which can be positive, negative or neutral; drinking milk from a bucket, mounting behavior during copulation, eating concentrates from a feed bucket or feeder, responding to a feedout wagon, milk letdown during milking as well as responding to a

handler. Much of this occurs as the result of sensory perception and investigatory behavior when cattle are first exposed to an unfamiliar environment.

● Many behaviors are a combination of these influences. Mounting behavior during copulation is a good example of this, with the novice bull being instinctually driven to attempt mounting, but the technique of mounting improves with experience.

Influence of Selection

Breeding programs which select for product-specific livestock can alter stock’s

physical and possibly behavioral attributes. For example breeding beef cattle for

high lean meat content, such as producing ‘double muscled’ stock, can adversely

impact on the natural delivery of calves during parturition, while selecting for rapid

growth can lead to genetic leg disorders. With regard to dairy stock, selection for

high milk production has reduced the meat producing attributes of their offspring,

while the high nutrient demands for milk production often leads to lactation

anoestrus (or delays in oestral cycling in newly calved cows). Furthermore, the

oestrus cycle can be manipulated artificially through exogenous hormone implants.

Selecting For Efficiency of Production vs Tameness

Genetic selection for tameness has continued long after animals have been

domesticated due to increased culling rates of stock that are difficult to handle. But

the increased mechanization of animal farming has shifted the target for artificial

selection towards efficiency of production rather than handling ease. Selection of

dairy stock for more intensive production may have produced more nervous and

aggressive animals making them more difficult to handle.

Such intensive breeding programs can reduce the genetic variability within a

species with unexpected consequences. The outbreak of ‘mad cow disease’ in the UK could be partly attributed to the increased susceptibility to the disease due to the lack of genetic diversity in the

country’s population of high performance Friesian dairy cows.

Vices develop, such as tongue rolling as a result of the thwarting of natural

behaviors and such abnormal behavior appears to be under genetic control (see

the following section). It may in fact be possible to breed stock that do not perform

these abnormal behaviors and this could result in improving their welfare status

because they do not find the environment as frustrating. However, some of the

abnormal behaviors noted may provide relief from frustration and thereby improve the animal’s welfare. The fact that these behaviors exist in the first place, however, are indicative of a welfare issue that needs to be addressed. The behavior of domesticated stock seems to be more flexible than their wild ancestors and could include the capacity to develop such vices as part of their coping mechanisms in our modern day, and often less animal friendly, production systems.

The Herd

Cattle are social animals. Forming a herd reduces the risk of predation by leaving large areas of grazing land open and reducing the chance of a predator seeing an individual animal or picking up its trail. In addition, predation is reduced by the rapid flight of large numbers of animals in random directions thereby confusing the predator. Also the opportunity of members of a herd learning survival tactics is increased through social facilitation.


Cattle are animals that fear novelty but become accepting of a routine. They have good memories and stock with previous experience of gentle handling will be easier to deal with than stock with a history of rough handling.

A better understanding of natural behavior will facilitate handling. Being prey animals, fear motivates them to be constantly vigilant in order to escape from predators. When cattle become agitated during handling, they are motivated by fear. Calm animals are then easier to handle. Fearful animals stick together making handling more difficult. If cattle become frightened, it can take 20 min for them to calm down. Although cattle are creatures of habit, gentle dairy cows can easily be prompted into movement that is dangerous to both the animal and handler by the use of unnecessary severe methods of handling (such as shouting and electric prods) and restraint. Attempts to force an animal to do something it does not want to do often end in failure and can cause the animal to become confused, disorientated, frightened or upset.

Handling cattle requires them to be ‘outsmarted’ rather than be ‘outfought’ and they should be ‘outwaited’ rather than hurried. Most tests of will between the handler and the cows are won by the cow.


When cows ruminate, they appear relaxed with their head down and their eyelids lowered. Resting cows prefer to lie on their chest, facing slightly uphill. Also, through cud chewing as well as mutual and self-grooming, aggression is reduced and there is little or no boredom.

Social Organization

In feral cattle, herd social organization usually takes the form of groups of mothers and offspring, and bachelor groups of bulls grazing separately. These groupings are related to the dominance of the stock within each one and so are often called social dominance groups. Dominant bulls join the cow herd when there are oestrous cows, which is their signal for mounting behavior. In domesticated cattle these social dominance groups are replaced by groups of cows and growing cattle, usually divided into similar age and single sex groups after about 6 months of age. Bulls kept for reproduction may be solitary confined for much of their life, or they may run with the herd of cows or even be rotated between herds. These changes in social structure from the natural groupings and the intensive husbandry methods used, increase social tension. With growing male cattle or bulls, the stresses of close confinement may make them difficult to manage safely without danger to the stockperson, with castration used to improve their temperament by reducing aggression.

In Conclusion

As cattle handlers, it is important to understand both innate behaviors of cattle and how our actions can modify their responses.


Others topics in this series - Available now

1. The Development of Cow Behavior

2. Vision

3. Hearing, Smell, Taste and Touch

4. Fear

5. Movement

6. Communication

Coming Soon

7. Pain

8. Improve Flow

9. Reproductive Behavior

10. Cow-Calf Bonding

11. Social Dynamics

12. Temperament

13. Impact of the Cow Handler

14. Aggression


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