Sunday, 11 November 2012

Behaviour and welfare of cattle

Estimating the welfare of an animal starts with knowing what is normal for this species and individual. Based on this knowledge we can notice changes in the behaviour, and study the possible welfare problems causing the change. So what behaviour is normal for cattle?

Naturally cattle would form nuclear herds of one bull and its cows, which are all related to the bull. The bull guards its herd and mates with cows in heat. All bovines are prey, not predators, so they constantly watch around and are easy to scare. Domesticated animals scare less easily, but they still have the instinct to "run first and think later". Ruminating is well suited for living amongst predators in open spaces: the animal eats very fast, just gathering food to it's rumen, before it hides away in a calm place where it can ruminate for several hours.


All bovines have a wide visual area, and just by slightly turning their heads they can see directly behind them. However, their sight is not very good. They distinguish movement far away very well, but have difficulty seeing what's close in front. Strong contrasts are also difficult for the cow to understand, so they tend to avoid them. Some farmers keep their animals in a pasture surrounded only with a white line on the ground! Since the white is so strong against the green grass, the cattle stays away from it (of course, in fright they would run over it and learn that it's only a drawn line). Indoors cows may avoid grates on the floor and shadowy corners, because they cannot see what it is. To see what's low infront of it, cattle must stop and "zoom" with their eyes, adjusting their lenses to see near.

Cattle have a good sense of smell, and an excellent sense of hearing. They recognize their offspring, each others and their caretakers mostly from their smell. The bulls can also easily smell the approaching heat of the cows. Studies show that bulls can detect cow heats much better than humans, which is why some farmers keep a bull on their farm just to detect even the silent heats. The range of sounds heard by cattle is much wider than what humans can hear. Especially high sounds (which humans can't even hear!), often generated by AC or milking robots, can frighten cattle.


Cows leave their herd right before calving. In farms the animals should be taken to calving pens, where they can be alone. When the calf has been born, the mother eats the fetal membranes to remove all signs of the newborn. It then licks the calf. By licking, the mother immediately learns to recognize her young, and also refreshens the calf and assists its breathing. Cow's tongue coarse, so it also dries the calf's skin from the fetal liquids.

A heathy calf is on its feet an hour after birth, and poking it's mother to find the udder. Young cows may not allow the calf to suckle at first, so it's vital to make sure the calf gets colostrum within few hours of its birth! Otherwise the calf does not get the antibodies it needs. Sometimes just small amount of colostrum milked from the mother and fed to the calf can get an apathetic, weak calf to get up and find the udder.

A video of a cow licking its newborn, and the quest to find the udder.

In the wild, the cow would hide the calf for the first days. Only after four days it would lead the calf to the herd. The reason for the wait is that the calf does not become bonded with its mother immediately. To make sure the calf will recognize its mom, the mom has to stay separate from the herd. In farms, calves are usually separated from their moms within a day from birth. The result is often a distressed cow and a sligtly confused calf, but within a few days both have adapted and act normally again.
See Stookey's article for more information about maternal behaviour of cows.

Behaviour of calves
Calves grow in groups, since naturally cows give birth roughly at the same time of the year. In groups the calves learn to know each others, they develop relationships and learn to behave like cattle by playing. Calves play most in the age of 2-3 months. Playing develops their muscles and keeps them healthy physically and mentally.  If the calf is not separated from its mom, it will suckle for 10-15 minutes 4-6 times a day, totalling up to 10-12 litres of milk.  Suckiling is not just a way to get food. When the calf pokes the cow's udder, the cow's body releases oxytocin. Oxytocin releases milk and acts as a mood enhancer. The calf's body releases oxytocin and gastric hormones once it suckles, relaxing the calf and enhancing its digestion.

In farms, calves are handled very unnaturally. They are weaned too soon, and often fed only twice a day. They may get sick, not grow well, have digestive problems and suck the ears, tails or penises of other calves. Calves have a very strong need to suckle. This need must be filled by providing them with dummy teats and/or feeding them from teat buckets 4-6 times a day for 10-15 minutes.

The cow will wean its calf slowly after 8-12 months. Bull calves will be driven away to their own group, but cows can stay in the nuclear group.

Eating, exercise and resting

Adult cows have a need to chew their food and to ruminate. If they are fed with too much grain or not enough roughage, they will become frustrated. Frustrated cows and bulls may roll or loll their tongues. Since cattle eats at the same time, they must all be able to do so even in a barn. There has to be enough space to eat, no need to stretch and reach to get the feed, and enough feed for everyone so that even the most timid animals get to eat.

Cattle may not look like a very sporting species, but when grazing, they walk up to 3 kilometers daily. The need to exercise builds up in a few days, causing disruptive behaviour and frustration. They must be able to move freely. Free movement also enables them to care for their fur and to socialize with other animals. Cattle must lick and scratch their skin to keep it clean and healthy. Licking other animals also stabilizes the group. Cows and bulls are large animals, and need space just to rise and lay down. Many barns have too short stalls, so the animals have problems with the most basic movements.

Cattle rests for 10-13 hours a day, of which only 4 hours is sleep. Even then they sleep only about 15 minutes at a time. Resting and laying down comfortably is vital for udder health and hoof health, and it improves blood flow to the udder, feet and womb. Laying down is also a way to thermoregulate. Cows usually lay down when they ruminate, so if they cannot lay down comfortably, they ruminate less and thus produce less.

Handling of cattle

Based on the knowledge of what's natural for cattle, it is easy to understand that calm behavior the key for good animal husbandry. Shouting, kicking and beating the animals is not ony illegal, but also very counterproductive. Scared animals are difficult to handle and produce less than relaxed animals. Cattle are prey animals: they need time to adapt to new environment, must be able to stay with the herd and are cautious of anything new. Always announce your presence when approaching cattle, and avoid approaching them directly from the front or back. Wearing the same work clothes will help them to learn to recognize you. Talking quietly, petting and calm scratching of the animal are appreciated - you may even get a cow licking you back, caring for you as if you were a member of the herd!

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