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Understanding Cattle Behavior - Part 2 - Vision


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.


Hearing and smell play important roles in how cows assess their environment, but of the five senses cattle possess, sight is the most dominant.

Limited Vision in Front

Vision in cattle is responsible for about half of the sensory information they receive from their surroundings. Cattle have a 330° vision, of this visual area, they have binocular vision for a limited area in front of them. This is where they will have the clearest vision and ability to judge depth or distance. In order to get the best possible vision, cattle will lower their head and face the stimulus of interest front on.

Vision from the Side

The rest of their visual field is monocular. This large monocular area is very good for detecting predators, but they cannot judge distance here well. Because of this poorer depth perception here, it is best to approach a cow from the side, but moving at a slow pace. This will not spook the cow and allow you to approach more closely than front on.

Blind Spot

The remaining area around the cow is referred to as the blind spot. This is the area directly behind the cow’s tail. If you approach the cow from her blind spot she will not know you are there. Suddenly moving into or out of this position can upset the animal and lead to flighty and unpredictable behavior.

Shadows and Contrast

Cattle are less able to discriminate objects that differ in light intensity and cannot see red colors as well as humans. This increases their color contrast, making shadows look more extreme compared to how we perceive them. Paired with limited depth perception, a block of shadow can look like a hole in the ground to cattle. Shadows, very bright light and sparkling reflections will distract or slow down cattle investigating their surroundings, often upsetting the smooth flow of cows in a laneway.

Light and Dark

Cattle are also motivated to move from areas of low light to well lit areas. Conversely, they will avoid moving from well lit to dark areas.

Taking cattle’s visual sense into consideration is very important when trying to move them. In both free moving and tethered cattle, moving them can be much easier if lighting is even, the area free of distracting and unfamiliar objects, and you don’t make sudden, significant movements.

Better Planning

When it comes to handling pens, loading chutes or alleyways, head gates, milking stanchions, etc., the location, configuration and orientation can all affect whether these areas are more or less stressful to your cattle.

Milk let-down is a common challenge for first time milking Dexters, but given the natural behavior and vision limitations of cattle perhaps it is completely understandable.

First we separate her from her calf all night, which is a huge stressor. Then, to make accessing her udders easier for us to milk, we ask her to stand with her head (often in confinement by a stanchion/head gate) facing a wall or a dark feed trough leaving her back side completely vulnerable. And we wonder why she is too nervous to let down her milk?

Much of this stress can be mitigated simply by changing the orientation of where she is tethered so she can see to her front and hopefully be looking from dark to light /inside to outside, thus better accommodating her natural tendencies.


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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