Everyone working with dairy cattle should understand what stresses them and the impact cow stress has on profitability. Cows are more sensitive to noises, especially high frequency noises, than people are. Solid chutes and gates that block cow vision can reduce stress when handling cows. Move cows in groups and don’t leave them isolated. They are herd animals. Cows should have positive contacts with people. Even the presence of someone who has handled cows improperly in the past can reduce milk production. Cows should eat in the same body position as they would graze in. Cows need eating time and ruminating time. Feed management, bunk space, and stall comfort affect the time spent eating and ruminating. Be aware of social problems within in a group of cows. They can reduce milk production by 2.5-5.0%. The more similar cows in a group are, the less social problems there will be.

Environment, people, and other cows can all affect how a cow behaves, eats, and milks. Most people who have worked with cows all of their lives know that it is best to keep cows calm, but they don’t necessarily know and appreciate all of the factors that cause cows to be stressed and the economical importance of cow behavior on their farm. As farms get bigger and have more hired labor, dairy producers need to be even more conscious of cow behavior and the factors that cause cow stress. Employees need to be trained accordingly.


Cows are more sensitive to noise than people are. Cow’s ears are most sensitive to high frequency noises (8000 hz) while people are most sensitive at 1000-3000 hz. For this reason, cows may be more sensitive to grating noises, like metal rubbing on metal, than people would be. Intermittent and strange noises are especially stressful to cows. If they normally live a quiet life, cows will be more sensitive than if they always have a lot of different noises around them. In a Texas study, a ringing telephone significantly increased the heart rate of the calves on pasture.

Continuously playing the radio at a normal sound level can help cows tolerate unexpected noises. In one study, sheep had higher gains when they had continuous, moderate-level background noise rather than no background noise at all.


Cows can see 300 degrees around them. Blocking their vision by using solid chutes and gates can reduce their stress during handling. Cows can also see colors. They will balk at sudden color changes. They will recognize people by the color of their clothes. If you have to treat a cow and it will hurt her, wear clothing of a special color and do the treatment in a special place (not in her stall or in the parlor).

Fear of Isolation

Cows are herd animals and if they are isolated, they can become stressed. In one study, a cow left alone in a stanchion had more leukocytes in her milk (a sign of stress). Move groups of animals and have them follow the leader.

Fear of Humans

If cows are handled improperly, they will develop a fear of humans. People’s size and their quick movements can make cows fearful. In a tie-stall, cows get used to people being in close contact for various tasks throughout the day. In a freestall, this may not be the case. Often, feeding and cleaning are automated and the only time cows are in real contact with people is when they are being restrained for treatment or transportation.

In one study, cows that were slapped or kicked produced 13% less milk than cows that were stroked or patted. The cows that were poorly handled also took twice as long to come into the milking parlor.

In another study, heart rates of cows were lower when the regular milker milked rather than the relief milker. Increased heart rate is associated with lower milk production and poor milk let-down. The cows milked by the relief milker produced 1.5 pounds (0.68 kg) less milk per day.

Even the presence at milking of a person who has handled a cow poorly in the past, will increase heart rate and can lower milk production by 10%. Cows move more during udder preparation and have poor milk let-down even when they aren’t actually touched by a person who treated them poorly in the past.

Heifers given extra handling during their first 9 months of life allowed people to be closer to them and ate more while people were around. Extra handling of heifers may also improve their behavior during their first milking. Make sure cows, especially calves and heifers calving for the first time, have positive contacts with people.

Behave in ways that calm cows. Talk quietly. Avoid sudden movements. Touch them gently. Use only handling facilities that have an easy cow flow. Minimize the need to push and hit cows. Use flight-zone guidelines to move cows without touching them by moving into and out of the flight-zones. Balance bad interaction with good interaction.

Feeding Behavior

Today’s dairy cows have high genetic potential for milk production. In order to support high milk production, these genetically superior cows must eat more dry matter than the cows of 50 years ago. This means that the feeding management of the past may not be adequate. Cows need to be tempted to always eat another mouthful of their ration and nothing should negatively impact a cow’s eating experience.

Feeding Position

Cows were designed to graze forage. For this reason, many experts recommend that cows eat in a body position similar to the position they would have while eating grass from pasture. The feed bunk should be 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm) higher than the floor where the cows are standing. Cows shouldn’t have to get down on their knees to eat, nor should they have to step up to get to the feed bunk. Cows should not be rubbing their necks on a rail while eating. If a cable is used as a neck rail, coat it or cover it with a plastic hose so that sharp wires don’t prick cows’ necks.

Selectivity of Feeding

Cows have also evolved to be fairly selective eaters. Depending on the particle length, moisture, and physical form of ingredients of a TMR, dairy cows will sort and preferentially eat concentrate rather than forage. In order to avoid acidosis and rumen upsets and to maximize dry matter intake, cows should have little opportunity to select their feed.

Eating Time

Researchers at Michigan State University found that cows housed in tie-stalls ate about 11 meals per day. Those cows that ate more total dry matter didn’t have more meals per day. Their meals were just larger. The best cows on their study ate 5 pounds (2.3 kg) per meal and the worst cows on the study ate 3.8 pounds (1.7 kg) per meal. The cows that ate more also ate faster. The average eating time was 27 minutes per meal. Five hours of the day was spent eating.

Any feeding system should provide feed access to cows at all times. TMR’s have helped farmers to provide all ration ingredients, especially grain, throughout the day. Restricting ration availability will decrease the number of meals per day and increase the size of each meal. This “slug-feeding” is known to reduce daily dry matter intake. When troubleshooting nutrition problems on a farm, consider timing how long cows eat at the feed bunk. If their meals are closer to an hour, rather than a half-hour, there may be a problem with feed access time.

Ruminating Time

Cows need to ruminate their feed in order for it to be fully digested and move out of the rumen to the lower part of the digestive tract. In the Michigan studies, cows that ate more were also more efficient ruminators. They ruminated more during the day and they ruminated more feed per hour. In a summary of 12 research trials, average rumination time was 6.6 hours per day and varied from 3.2 to 8.6 hours per day. Other studies have shown that cows have about 15 rumination bouts per day. Poor stall comfort may reduce the amount of time cows lie down and ruminate.


High-producing, high-intake cows need to drink as much water as possible. In the Michigan studies, the higher producers drank more often and drank more each time they went to get a drink. Cows can drink 2 to 6 gallons (8-23 liters) of water per minute. Don’t let the water system limit the cow’s ability to drink large quantities of water at one time.

Social Interactions

Social interactions can impact feeding time, ruminating time, and water intake. Dominant cows may inhibit submissive cows from eating at the bunk, drinking water, or lying down. Fresh cows, first-calf heifers, and recently moved cows are often the submissive cows in a group. Larger cows, older cows, and cows with more seniority in a group are often more dominant. Social interactions are often highest when fresh feed is offered or right after milking. Social interactions are also more of a problem when alleys are narrow and cows have difficulty passing other cows.

All groups have a social hierarchy. It is usually shown by head bunting, pushing, and cows avoiding others. Heifers that are raised together have been seen to associate together and be less aggressive towards each other.

Grouping strategy impacts social interactions. Over-crowding will usually increase the negative effects of social interactions. In one study, where feed was limited and competition was high, dominant cows ate 23% more feed than submissive cows.

The more similar cows are to one another in a group, the less social problems will occur. If cows can be easily and rapidly moved to and from the parlor, the ration is fed and pushed-up often throughout the day, and the cows in the group are fairly similar, there will be less of a negative effect from over-crowding.

Some research has shown that moderate competition for feed access can actually increase intake. Research with lambs showed that meal size increased as the number of lambs in a pen increased. This increase in meal size is generally associated with reduced total intake. But, total feed consumption was highest for an intermediately crowded group rather than for the least crowded group.

Often farmers are concerned about moving cows from one pen to another because of past experiences with cows dropping in milk once they are moved. This is likely due to the nutritional change, differences in milking, and social changes. Usually, when social problems do occur, they last about 7 days. Social problems have been documented to reduce milk production by 2.5-5.0%.

Group changes can be managed to minimize drops in milk production. Move groups of cows from one pen to another rather than moving cows one at a time. Also, move cows at night. This will reduce social problems. Try to limit differences in nutrient density of rations between groups to about 15%.


Christensen, D.A. and M. Fehr. 2000. Eating and Feeding Behavior of Dairy Cows: Dietary Influences and Impact on Production. Western Canada Dairy Symposium.

Dado, R. and M. Allen. 1992. The seven eating habits of highly effective cows. Michigan State Animal Science Newsletter, September, 1992.

Dado, R.G. and M.S. Allen. 1994. Variation in and relationships among feeding, chewing and drinking variables for lactating dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci. 77:132.

de Passille, A.M. and Jeff Rushen. 1999. Are You a Source of Stress or Comfort for Your Cows? Western Canada Dairy Symposium.

Grandin, T. 1997. Adapting Bovine Behavior to Improve Performance, Western Canada Dairy Symposium.

Grant, R. and J. Albright. 1997. Dry matter intake influenced by cow grouping, behavior. Feedstuffs. December 8, 1997, p. 12.

Johnson, A.P. 1997. Free stall guidelines. In: Proceedings of the Miner Institute Dairy Day, Chazy, NY, November 11, 1997.

Sniffen, C.J., K. Danahey, N. Andrew, and W. Emerich. 1998. Feeding behavior of dairy cows. Does it affect animal productivity? In: Proceedings of the Miner Institute Dairy Day, Chazy, NY, November 19, 1998.

Related Links:

Eating and Feeding Behavior of Dairy Cows: Dietary Influences and Impact on Production ( )

David Christensen, University of Saskatchewan

Teaching Principles of Behavior and Equipment Design for Handling Livestock (

Temple Grandin, Colorado State University

Author discusses topics covered in a course she teaches entitled "livestock Behavior and Handling". She gives a general description and justification for why each topic is presented. Emphasis of the course is on maintaining high standards for animal welfare.



Related Links:

Eating and Feeding Behavior of Dairy Cows: Dietary Influences and Impact on Production
David Christensen, University of Saskatchewan
Scroll down to "proceedings" menu. Select "2000". Click on "Table of Contents". Scroll down to Session V. Nutrition and Management. Detailed review of literature pertaining to feeding behavior. Tries to relate findings to practical applications on dairy farms.
Teaching Principles of Behavior and Equipment Design for Handling Livestock
Temple Grandin, Colorado State University
Author dsicsuses topics covered in a course she teaches entitled "livestock Behavior and Handling". She gives a general description and justification for why each topic is presented. Emphasis of the course is on maintaining high standards for animal welfare.


Mary Beth de Ondarza

Mary Beth de Ondarza
45 articles

Nutritional consultant for the dairy feed industry at Paradox Nutrition, LLC.

Look to Paradox Nutrition, LLC for providing:

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Dr. de Ondarza received her Ph. D. from Michigan State University and her Masters Degree from Cornell University, both in the field of Dairy Nutrition.

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Paradox Nutrition

Paradox Nutrition

Paradox Nutrition, LLC is a nutritional consultation business for the dairy feed industry. Mary Beth de Ondarza, Ph.D. is the sole proprietor.

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