Humans – Are we affecting our cow’s performance?

Many of you are probably thinking that I have gone mad, but this title speaks volumes to me. Yes you affect your cows performance by what you feed them. Yes you affect their performance by what environment you place them into. Yes you influence their performance by how you manage aspects like fertility, cleanliness etc. However, can we really influence our animal’s performance by how we behave around them? I believe the answer to this question is yes.


During this article I will discuss some of the aspects of our own behaviour that cause animals to become stressed. I will also discuss some of the ways we can combat this. This article is focused around dairy but the same principal applies to both beef and sheep who will respond slightly differently but the basic principal remains.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Rushen (1999) found that dairy cows which had been caused stress reduced milk yield, reduced milk constituent levels and had lower bulling activity. He found that there were multiple stress factors for this including heat, cold, other animals, abnormal scenarios, but most of all people. Look at the picture below (Figure 1) is this animal stressed?? 

This animal is being caused unnecessary stress by the person pictured, and whilst the animal is stressed the person is also stressed, we should therefore be aiming to reduce stress levels for both cow and person. But first we need to understand what causes our animals stress.


First we begin with environment, yes the connection is clear, we control the environment we place our animals in, no one else. We can decide whether they have a well ventilated shed or a wooden hut that is damp and mouldy at the bottom of a field; IT IS OUR DECISION. Obviously I wouldn’t expect anyone to be placing their cows in a wooden hut but it shows the influence we can have on a cow’s environment.

Heat Stress

Probably the biggest problem here is heat. Heat stress is bad news, Schuller (2016) found that cows suffering from long term heat stress were 63% less likely to conceive than cows not experiencing heat stress. Comfort also plays a role with cubicle bed dimensions and bedding type playing a large role in lying times which must be above 12 hours to avoid compromising an animal’s performance.

Feed and Water

Second we must consider feed and water. Given the current situation within the industry it is easy to consider reducing our feed rate. However, this has a negative impact on performance, reducing BCS and stressing the animal out due to malnutrition. Having been to the Total Dairy conference in June and listened to Temple Grandin speak (the leading figure in animal behaviour). She was very clear on the effect on cows of not having feed: “Cows that run out of feed get stressed”. Water is a similar story. We must keep water space per cow above 10cm in order to avoid stress levels rising and once again we have control over both of these aspects.

Stress from Other Animals
Figure 2
Figure 2

Thirdly is stress from other animals, Figure 2 shows this more clearly.

Dog chasing is one of the worst things imaginable for cows. Often farmers have untrained dogs that cause their animals’ unnecessary stress, or have footpaths passing over their land. Flies through the summer are also another major stressor and once again we have control over the influence that they have.

Affect of People

Finally and most important is people, always remember that COWS DON’T FORGET (Grandin, 2016). We can influence stress levels in so many ways, by changing routine, differing staff, shouting, running, hitting, and footpaths through fields, social regrouping and lameness. We make so many mistakes when it comes to handling cows in the correct way.

So to what extent do we cause our animals stress? Dobson and Smith (2000) observed that the difference between two people, one causing minimal stress and one causing high stress levels was vast. They showed significant differences in conception rate, increasing calving interval by 14 days and increasing services per conception by 0.5, this is obviously extra cost a business doesn’t need. If we put a monetary value on this for a 100 cow herd, 0.5 straws per cow = £10 per cow, 1 extra day calving interval =£3.09 per day therefore per cow the influence of stress was costing £63 per cow which over 100 cows is £6300 a significant saving by just having well trained and relaxed staff. Hemsworth 2002 had similar findings for milk yield as shown in table 1.

Table 1
Table 1

The same also applies to heifers, dehorning and weaning are two of the most stressful times for a baby calf. Beginning with dehorning, it has been proven that if a calf is not given effective pain relief when dehorned, cortisol levels rise which will compromise growth rates for anything up to 2 weeks, this is important when we consider the added costs of not getting our heifers to calve by 24 months of age. With a cost of rearing between £1.50 and £2 per day 14 days extra to calving is going to cost a business between £21 and £28 per heifer.


Secondly is weaning, weaning suddenly will increase stress levels and reduce DMI, reducing growth rates (Price, 2002). This will mean targets are not achieved and adds on average an extra month onto first calving date. This will therefore cost the business a minimum of £60 per heifer, meaning that it is vital we wean gradually.

We can also have an influence on stress levels by introducing new things to our animals. In some cases this has to be done to keep the farm moving forward and improve the cow/calf environment, however gradual changes are key (Grandin and Deesing, 1998).


Finally is breeding, this can have a major influence on animal stress and once again we control it. The perfect example of this is the British Blue where double muscles on the rump often lead to calving problems, which evidently stresses the animal out. With Dairy Cows, there are fewer traits which we have influenced over the years. However there has been a tendency to breed animals that have straighter legs, and poorer feet, with straight legs causing excess pressure, resulting in higher incidence of lameness. Also teat placement, rear teats have become closer and closer, obviously this causes problems and discomfort whilst milking which can cause the cow to become restless which will both stress the cow and the person milking.

*** FUN FACT*** A Cow with a spiral whorl above the eyes is more likely to become fearful (Grandin 1999). Look at a Limousin next time you get chance, I promise you it is true.

Reducing Stress Levels

So to finish this article we must look at how we combat all these issues. Below is a list of the key points that we must adhere to in order to reduce stress levels and therefore improve performance of our animals and ultimately have an effect on profit without having to spend money* (*This doesn’t happen very often).

  • Make sure animals are used to all the people they will come into contact with throughout their life from an early age. If you have employees, or even if you are a family run farm rotate people around jobs in order to achieve this.
  • Set out clear guidelines for both yourself and employees to follow as to how you want animals to be handled. Think about ways to make sure this happens.
  • Make sure you have an effective handling system in place. Avoid using restraint when possible and get your animals used to the handling system from a young age, this will reduce stress as the animal gets older (Read Temple Grandin’s research on this in abattoir’s there are some very clear ideas on how to design a handling system effectively).
  • Create the best environment possible for the cow. Keeping the cow clean and happy is vital in improving performance. Introduce fans and brushes where necessary and make sure the cow always has plenty of feed, water and bedding.
  • Use effective pain relief if the cow is in obvious pain
  • Select Bulls with a good temperament, although heritability is low it is still important we consider this.
  • Wean calves gradually rather than abruptly
  • Change equipment that needs to be replaced when it should be (e.g. Milk Liners, Water Troughs, and Bedding etc.)
  • Stick to a daily routine as much as possible cows are clever animals they expect the same daily routine.
  • Minimise lameness, this is one of the biggest stressors imaginable. An effective foot trimmer coupled with regular locomotion scoring should combat this.
  • Look for signs of stress, tail swishing, head up, sweating, ear radar, skin quivering, whites of the eyes showing
  • Try to stay out of the cows flight zone

In conclusion, it is clear that we have a large influence on our animals’ behaviour and ultimately their performance. Reducing stress levels from all angles is very low cost and will result in increased revenue. However in order to achieve this it is important to have relaxed employees around the cows. In order to achieve this a protocol needs to be put into place and poor stockmen should have the necessary training in order to improve their reaction around cattle.

However, stockmanship is very often a natural thing and we should be aiming to employ these people to work on our farms. They are worth more to a business than you would imagine. Finally always remember that our calves are just as important as cows. Reducing stress at this point will improve their performance in later life.

Will Astley

Dairy Specialist

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