Human-cow interaction: Calm and considerate

We often forget that the foundation of cow comfort is the human-cow interaction. Increasingly, we focus on management strategies to minimize the cost of production and optimize performance, but the focus is seldom on how we interact with the cows in our herd.

The ideal personality type for working with dairy cattle has been described as a “confident introvert.” In contrast, a “confident extrovert” typically manages just average milk production. Considerable research has demonstrated the potential productive benefits of gentle, calm handling and vocalizations especially when cows are being milked.

Pioneering work on the relationship between the farmer and his cattle was conducted in the UK by Seabrook in the 1970s and 80s (Seabrook, M. F. 1984. The Vet Rec. 115:84-87). In these earlier studies, cows produced 13% more milk when handled gently compared with aversive (i.e. rough) handling during milking. More recent research has found that simply the presence in the milking parlor of someone who had previously treated the cows aversively (not the milker) was associated with a 47% increase in residual milk. Interestingly, milk yield has been stimulated by about 3.6% when the milking team had more positive vocal as well as physical contact with the cows. Both aspects seem to be important – so, it really does pay to be calm and considerate when interacting with dairy cows.

A study published in 2009 (Hanna et al., 2009. Animal. 3:737-743) evaluated the relationship among personality traits and attitudes of the herdsperson and cow productivity. In this study, the personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness were most strongly correlated to positive attitudes when working with cows. Three attitude traits – higher levels of empathy with the cow, good job satisfaction, and low negativity – were associated with higher milk yield. Another study (Kielland et al., 2010. Journal of Dairy Science. 93:2998-3006) found that farmers with greater empathy toward dairy cattle had fewer cows with hock lesions related to poor housing design and cow management.

This research points toward an important relationship between fear and productivity of the cow. Increasingly, research tells us that management that instills fear or compromises the cow’s well-being is associated with lost performance. In fact, a moderate relationship has been shown between flight distance of the cow and milk yield. When farmers consistently interact negatively with their cows, we see less production of milk, milk protein, and milk fat (Hemsworth et al., 2000. Journal of Animal Science. 78:2821-2831). At the same time, milk cortisol is elevated which is reflective of a chronic stress response. This same study observed that cows that were less fearful of their handlers had higher conception rates.

The bottom line here is that there are important economic consequences to how we handle our dairy cattle. Over a century ago, W. D. Hoard wrote: “The rule to be observed in this stable at all times, toward the cattle… is that of patience and kindness. A man's usefulness in a herd ceases at once when he loses his temper and bestows rough usage. Men must be patient. Cattle are not reasoning beings…rough treatment lessens the flow (of milk). That injures me as well as the cow. Always keep these ideas in mind in dealing with my cattle." As the research continues to accumulate, we see how right he was!

By Rick Grant, Miner Institute.