Cow comfort: 4) The cow

Natural behaviour

Checking up on cow comfort means going back in time to find out what natural behaviour is for a cow. In earlier times cows were kept on pasture and able to follow natural behaviour patterns. However these patterns have been constrained because cows have been moved into barns and stables. To judge the level of cow comfort, it is most important to know how a cow acts naturally. The more natural her behaviour is in the barn, the better it will be for her and you. Below is a simplified daily time budget for lactating dairy cattle.

Daily time budget for lactating dairy cow
Activity Time devoted to activity per day
Eating 3 to 5 hours (9 to 14 meals per day)
Lying/resting 12 to 14 hours
Social interactions 2 to 3 hours
Ruminating 7 to 10 hours
Drinking 30 minutes
Outside pen (milking, travel time) 2.5 to 3.5 hours

Source: Grant, Rick: Incorporating dairy cow behavior into management tools.

Fear of isolation

Cows are herd animals and become highly stressed when separated from the rest of the group. For example, it has been found that a cow left alone in a stanchion has increased leukocytes in her milk. Move animals into groups and have them follow the leader.


Cows are more sensitive to noise than people are. Cows’ ears are most sensitive to high frequency noises of 8000 Hz, while people are highly sensitive at 1000 to 3000 Hz. For this reason, cows may be more sensitive to grating noises like metal rubbing on metal, than people. Intermittent and strange noises are especially stressful to cows. Cows that normally live a quiet life will be more noise sensitive than cows which don’t. 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 to tolerate unexpected noises.


Cows have wide-angle vision and can see for 300 degrees around them. But cows only have 3D vision looking directly in front, so this is the only direction in which they can estimate distances well. Blocking their vision by using solid chutes and gates can reduce their stress during handling. Cows can also see colours and will balk at sudden colour changes. They recognize people by the colour of their clothes. If you have to treat a cow and know that it will hurt her, wear the right coloured clothing and do the treatment in a special place instead of her stall or the parlour.


A cow has her own escape zone around her and when another animal or human passes the border of this zone she will react by attacking, socialising or escaping. The size of the zone depends on the character of the cow; a calm cow needs a smaller personal space than a nervous cow. Heifers need a bigger personal space than older animals. During a cow’s life, her personal space decreases as she becomes more accustomed to people and their living environment. As cows age, they frequently become higher in rank too, so they are no longer afraid of other cows.


All herds have a social hierarchy. It is usually shown by head bunting, pushing or avoidance. Heifers that are raised together tend 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 percent more feed than submissive cows. Fresh cows, first-calf heifers and recently moved cows are often submissive in a group. Larger cows, older cows and cows with more seniority in a group are often more dominant.

In every herd there is a dominant cow called the ‘bull cow’ and there can be more than one. This cow behaves differently to her herd mates. For instance, when all the cows walk away from you, this cow will come toward you. Many farmers don’t know their bull cow/s.

Data on different breeds

All over the world there are different breeds of cows used to produce milk. The most common breeds are Holstein, Friesian, Jersey and Brown Swiss. The composition of their milk varies between different breeds and during lactation within breeds.

Breeds across the world
Breed Fat percentage Protein percentage Lactose percentage
Brown Swiss 3.80 3.38 4.80
Holstein 3.56 3.02 4.61
Jersey 4.97 3.65 4.70
Egyptian buffalo 7.90 4.00 4.80
Ayrshire 3.86 3.15 4.60