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  • Writer's pictureKaty Stanlake

Stress Free Cattle Handling

By Andy Stokes BVSc CertAVP (Cattle) MRCVS

Andy Stokes looks at elements of stockmanship, awareness of cow’s body language and cow behaviour.

Why do we care about this?

1. Public perception, particularly with recent high-profile cases of poor animal handling in the media.

2. Physiological changes in stressed cows leads to;

  • Increased cortisol and decreased immune function

  • Decreased oxytocin and poor milk let down or slow milking

  • Increased heart rate and metabolic stress

3. Behavioural changes in stressed cows leads to:

  • Reduced eating bouts

  • Reduced resting time

  • Increased lameness due to poor cow flow and more shearing forces

Cow behaviour can be hard to interpret but one of the simplest cues to look out for is head position when moving. Relaxed cows walk with their heads held low whereas stressed cows will have their heads in the air.

As cows move they prefer to keep a predator (or a stockperson) on their left, visible using their left eye. This is because it is the cow’s right-hand side of her brain which processes what is seen using her left eye, and it is the right brain which is associated with fear and flight. For this reason, if possible, it is better to move cows from right to left along a race, or past something they maybe fearful of.

Cows senses are generally better than our own


  • Cows are poor at judging distance and have a poor depth of field

  • They can see moving objects much better than still objects

  • For this reason the technique called ‘wiggling’ can be useful when trying to move cows.

Basically do not stand still! Shift your weight from side to side and cows will have a clearer awareness of where you are.


  • Their hearing is more acute, and with a wider range than humans

  • In nature they would generally be in a very quiet environment and given the choice they prefer silence.

The on-farm radio blaring out has nothing to do with relaxing cows, it is only to relax the people that work with the cows!


  • Cows have a very acute sense of smell

They probably smell the presence of the AI technician, foot-trimmer or vet rather than see them.

The result is that cows learn far more, and more quickly about us and what we’re doing, than we do about them.

What do cow’s hate?

  • Uncertainty. Think of the wobbly crush floor; they will enter the crush far better if the floor is stable.

  • Slippery surfaces. Most farms have these. They are the areas that cows hate and will avoid travelling across at all costs.

  • Stepping down. They’d much rather step up, than step down.

  • Backing Up. They cannot see behind them so they hate going backwards. Think of trying to drive cows backwards down a race, they really don’t like it.

  • Blind Corners. They’d much rather see where they are going.

  • Humans Shouting. They prefer silence.

  • Restricted Space. This results in more ‘waiting cows’; cows who are neither eating, drinking nor lying down, as they have to wait for other cows to move out of the way before they can go and do one of those three things. The ‘waiting cow’ in-turn leads to more ‘waiting cows’. Cows with more space are more relaxed, exhibit more grooming behaviours and have shorter flight zones.

Next month we’ll look at aspects of handling facilities that can improve cow flow, and reduce stress for both cows and the people working with them.

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