Understanding teenagers in the dairy herd

Just like teenagers, cows are influenced by the group around them and need to be given choices, independence and rules.
calendar icon 3 May 2021
clock icon 3 minute read


So said New Zealand vet Neil Chesterton in a recent webinar who explained how an understanding of this mentality can enable you to see your herd differently and help improve cow flow.

A herd is a bunch of individuals

Firstly, we need to think about the herd rather than individual cows. They are a prey animal so even the quietest herds are looking out for threats. Frightening them, increases arousal across the whole herd. You need to keep this as low as possible if you want to have good cow flow.

Cows have personal space just like us. If we step into it, we create stress and they will move away. Instead, use a cow’s balance point (around shoulder level) to move them gently. Keep out of their space, walk gently past their balance point and they’ll move forward.

With eyes on either side of their head, cows can see almost all the way around to spot any predators. They have a small blind spot at the rear so if you stand behind them, they’ll turn their head and walk in that direction – not necessarily the way you want them to go.

When walking, they’ll have their head down looking for a safe place to put their front foot. They don’t worry about their back foot as it will land in exactly the same place. Conversely, having their heads up is a sign of pressure so make sure you give them plenty of time and space.

Cows recognise people so don’t let their first experience of a new person be a painful thing as they’ll take a long time to forgive them. Studies have shown that 50% of a herd are naturally high fear animals, so if you can reduce it, you’ll get better cow flow.

Herds have rules

Similar to teenagers, herds have a pecking order with dominant, leader and follower cows. In his studies, Neil found that it’s dominant cows who set the speed of walking and cow flow. They push the leaders and pull the followers. And no matter how much pressure we put on them, they’ll set the pace and won’t go any faster than they want to.

Giving cows space and time to find their own order is important. Herds are mostly followers and they’re never happier than when they’re following the animal in front of them. It’s amazing how consistent their walking order is, although this tends to be different to they order they come into the parlour for milking.

Herds need routines

You need a consistent routine for good cow flow, and it must be followed by everybody in your milking team. Cows are creatures of habit, they love routines and will respond to it.

Whatever the approach on your farm - filling stalls, cupping, teat spraying, backing gates – make sure the whole team do jobs consistently. Different people must follow a routine until the cows get to know them. Avoid having one person listening to the radio if others don’t. Everybody must do it the same way.

As we’ve learnt from experience, shouting at adolescents doesn’t deliver the desired result either. Talk to your cows gently, give them room and reduce pressure where you can. They’ll become calm and compliant adults that’ll make you proud.

TheCattleSite News Desk

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