Understanding Cattle Behavior - Part 5 - Movement


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.

Individual Animal Movement

Flight Zone

The flight zone of a cow is an invisible boundary (think of it as a big circle) around the whole animal and is the minimum distance the animal feels safe from you or stimuli that the animal considers threatening. Moving into the flight zone will cause the animal to move as it tries to re-establish this safe distance between itself and you or the perceived threat.

Because the animal’s senses are concentrated towards the reception of signals from the front, the flight distance is greater in front of than behind the animal.

The flight zones of cows differ between individuals, and are influenced by things like environment, temperament, age and previous experience. The flight zone of a cow will also change depending on the situation they are in. Novel and stressful situations will increase the flight zone of the animal, as will unfamiliar people. As they become habituated or relaxed in a situation, the flight zone will reduce. The pace at which you enter the flight zone will also influence the cow’s behavior. Rapidly moving into the flight zone will stimulate the flight response of cattle, whereas gentle movement will still cause the animal to move away, but it will do so more slowly.

Generally, the flight zone of loose housed or pastured cattle herds is approximately 10 -15 feet, although it could be smaller where the stock are handled more frequently. Generally dairy cattle have a smaller flight distance than beef cattle obviously resulting from more frequent handling and interaction with people, on dairy farms compared to beef farms, and genetic selection for closer flight zones during the domestic evolution of dairy cattle.

Handling Experience

In the same way that fearfulness can either increase or decrease with experience, the flight zone will depend on the animal’s history. Cows that have positive handling experiences will have a smaller flight zone than those with negative experiences.

In cattle, this flight zone can be used successfully to aid animal movement. Entering the flight zone will encourage the cow to move, to re-establish it. The direction and posture by which you move into the flight zone will influence how the animal moves. The handler’s position and direction of approach in relation to the cow’s ‘point of balance’ determines the direction the cow will move in.

Point of Balance

The point of balance is an imaginary line through the animal’s shoulder. If you enter the flight zone from in front of the cow (in front of the point of balance) it will cause her to move backwards. Entering from behind the shoulder (behind the point of balance) will cause her to move forwards.

Halter trained animals are conditioned to move in response to leading. They are prompted to move by the forward movement of the handler, effectively the opposite to the point of balance and flight zone described above. When moving a haltered animal it is important to keep in mind stimuli that will cause an animal to baulk. Loud noises, unfamiliar sounds and sights, will all cause an animal to stop moving. Pulling too hard on the lead line can be both painful to the animal and futile for you. Avoiding these fear-inducing situations or slowly and calmly leading cows through this area is a better option. A cow that is comfortable with its environment and handler should move easily when required.

Herd Movement

The forced movement of cattle (that are loose and un-haltered) initially creates an order unrelated to dominance, because the dominant animals are interspersed throughout the herd. However, subordinate cattle gradually move to the front of the herd and the most dominant animals stay in the middle, leading the herd by ‘pushing’ rather than ‘pulling’. There is also a reluctance to be at the back of the mob, as these animals are the most exposed and closest to the human (or predator) driving them.

When moving the herd, keep in mind that cattle will naturally group and move together; movement of other cows triggers the next cows to move. The pace at which you push the herd will influence the pace of their movement. A slow, consistent pace is best as this ensures safe movement, reducing the risks of injury and lameness, or of causing panic in the herd. Calm people have calm cows and calm cows give more milk and have fewer problems such as hoof conditions. It is important to let cows move at their own pace because hurrying them up achieves little else other than making the last few cows in a group nervous. Cows generally walk in some order of rank and do not overtake each other. When they are calm, they keep their heads down so they can see where they are placing their feet. They only lift their heads when they become nervous. Since cows are creatures of habit, they like to learn exactly what is happening, what they have to do and when. So it is important to have patience to allow routines to develop, then rigidly stick to these routines. A group of cows moves like a flowing stream, so to prevent this stream from being interrupted, it is important to avoid obstacles, passageways with dead ends and things that make cows feel afraid.


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