Cow comfort: 5) Social behaviour

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.

Social behaviour

Social interactions are part of natural herd behaviour. But it is important to have good conditions in the barn, such as space at the feeding area, space around water bowls or troughs and enough good cubicles for cows to rest in. With good barn conditions social interactions will have less influence on milk production.

The more similar cows are to one another in a group, the fewer social problems will occur. There will be less of a negative effect from overcrowding if:

  • cows can be easily and rapidly moved to and from the parlour.
  • the ration is fed and supplied often throughout the day.
  • the cows in the group are fairly similar.


Cattle have a distinct urge to lick and be licked by their peers. Licking behaviour is a normal behavioural manifestation. All the animals in a group are licked, but not all the animals lick. Animals of similar rank lick each other more often than animals of very different ranks. Social licking is often associated with a change of activities, such as before or after a rest. Licking seems to have a calming effect after cattle have been disturbed. Cattle need social grooming and if this need cannot be met because the animal is tethered or such like – the need accumulates and will result in intensified grooming activity as soon as the possibility arises.


The best indicator of oestrus is when any cow or heifer repeatedly stands and accepts mounting by one of her herd mates. Unfortunately, they do not do this on demand. Those responsible for oestrus detection must watch for this behaviour and combining what they see with their own previous knowledge/experience, to decide whether to inseminate or not. The social order of precedence is interrupted by cows on heat as they threaten both dominating and subordinate herd members.

 Social behaviour bulling

Pasture situation

Cows are herd animals and accustomed to doing things in groups. When dominant cows start grazing, the other cows will follow. That is why you will see the whole herd of cattle grazing at the same moment.


Limited space is one of the main reasons for aggression among cattle. If space is limited, cows will often meet each other at very close range with limited escape options.