November 23, 2008

Animal behaviour and welfare: Cattle Part 5


Baulking: Milking: Cow hates: Social dominance: Training heifers: Milking plant faults: Cattle welfare problems

By Dr Clive Dalton

This is a major problem in handling cattle in yards, when they stop or baulk and it breaks the flow, wastes time and the stock usually have to be pushed or goaded to proceed. The ideal is when stock just flow along races and don't need to be pushed.

The other dangerous area is when dairy cows leave the paddock through a gate to enter the race to walk to the farm dairy for milking. If not controlled by the stockperson, damage to hips and ribs can occur by the gate posts and cows can go down and be trampled on by others in the rush.

Which of these cows will be first out of the gate, and which will be last?
This is where their social order comes into effect.

Injuries also happen during transport when cattle are moving off trucks through narrow doorways. They need to be given plenty of time so they don't get stuck in the doorway or bruise their hips on exit.

The main causes are:

  • Seeing disturbance ahead.
  • Noise ahead e.g. from shouting or banging gates or crushes.
  • Dead ends that block their view.
  • People standing in front of their point of balance.
  • Flapping clothes or sacking.
  • Cattle in adjacent pens moving against their flow.
  • Smells e.g. blood on floor after dehorning.
  • Unfamiliar yards.
  • Shadows, open doors, drains or what appear to them to be black holes.
  • Bright sunlight especially reflecting off windows.

Baulking can be prevented by:
  • Understanding and exploiting their point of balance.
  • Making sure stock can see through the head bail to what looks like freedom.
  • Handling stock in smaller pens.
  • Having a good footing for them.
  • Having solid boarding along sides of races.
  • Having a good clear entrances to yards so stock don't approach dark holes.
  • Avoiding dead ends and sharp corners. Provide a nice gradual curved flow.
  • Use rubber to quieten the banging from gates and headbails.
  • Teach handlers to keep the noise down and tie up and quieten all barking dogs.
The "Point of Balance"
  • This is an imaginary spot just behind the shoulder.
  • When you move in front of it, the animal moves back.
  • When you move behind it, the animal goes forward.
  • There is another point in the middle of the head.
  • When you move to the left of it the animal moves to the right, and vice versa


  • This is where knowledge of animal behaviour pays enormous dividends.
  • The goal is always - Fast and Efficient milking.
  • Milking needs to be fast to empty the udder quickly while the oxytocin stimulus is still effective (it lasts 5-7 minutes).
  • Milk letdown is caused by oxytocin and the cow has to be trained by conditioned reflex to have a letdown to suit the milking routine.
  • Milking needs to be efficient to completely evacuate the udder, and encourage more alveoli (milk cell) activity, and reduce possible infection (mastitis) from milk left in the udder.
  • Milking must be a “pleasant and positive” experience for the cow, and this has to be provided by the milker who "likes cows". It's as simple as that!
  • Research has shown how the "attitude" of the humans to the cows and milking has very measurable benefits from extra milk in the vat. The challenge is to teach the right "attitude" to the humans!
  • It's always been well accepted that women are better milkers than men and there's plenty of evidence to show that as good staff move - herd production also changed. Good people got high production from their cows wherever they went.
  • Cows must not get a negative experience in the milking parlour so use some other yard or a time other than milking to do anything that will distress them.
  • Design of milking parlour is vital for good milking performance as it inevitably affects both the cows and the staff.
  • Fit buzzers or bells to backing gates so cows become conditioned to the signal and move before the gate moves. This saves injuries to legs and reduces stress.

What milking cows hate
  • Be anthropomorphic and think about this list from the cow’s point of view.
  • Poor races that injure their feet.

  • Poor entrances to paddocks and the farm dairy that bang their hips and ribs.
  • To be touched without warning.
  • To be hit by sticks, especially as they are going into the bail.
  • Badly adjusted milking machines that hurt teats.

  • Cups falling off all the time and having to be put on again.
  • Sore teats- where the pain is made worse by milking.
  • Dark holes that appear to be full of predators.
  • Unfamiliar and sudden noises.
  • People shouting at them in loud, high-pitched voices that echo under the large roof of big rotaries.
  • Strangers in the milking bail – especially those who might be there to inflict some pain.
  • Stray electric shocks.
  • Poorly trained staff who hate cows. The cows soon find this out.
  • Monday mornings or mornings after favourite teams lose. Staff are not in good moods.
  • Tired exhausted staff, who have had little time off and who come to hate cows.
  • Staff arguing or fighting during milking. Domestics! Two staff versus one.
  • Staff coming off dope or alcoholic hangovers.
  • No warning when things happen to them – sudden frights.
  • Volume washing with cold water on their teats.
  • Having cups put on roughly, and removing them roughly before the vacuum is completely broken.
The proper way to put cups on - with great empathy for the cow
  • Backing gates that hit you in the hocks.
  • Electric backing gates with hot electric chains hanging down.
  • Being in a large herd and losing your mates.
How do you make sure you always eat with a friend or cow of lower social order?
  • Very hot conditions with no shade available in paddock or yard. Cows love a sprinkler on hot days to cool off after their walk to be milked.
  • No water trough at the dairy to have a drink after a long walk to the dairy for milking.
  • Flies - especially those that bite.
  • Slipping over on hard too-smooth concrete.
  • Banging heads or backs against badly designed pipe work.
Modern milking plants are good but you still find minor design
faults from the cow's point of view.

  • Deep mud.
  • Eye contact by humans.
  • Small children in the dairy.
  • Dogs in the dairy.

Dairy farmer's dog used to keep cows moving instead of backing gate.
Not a good idea but cheap to run!

What makes happy milkers?

  • Confidence with cows.
  • Equipment that does not keep breaking down.
  • Plenty of time off!
  • Nice quiet cows that don't kick. The cows know they are liked by the milker.
  • Cows with well-shaped udders and teats to make milking easy.
  • Cows that don't dung in the dairy (more than 2 dungs/HB row indicates problems).
  • Good drenching facilities so cows don't fight the operator.
  • The pit or rotary platform at a good height to avoid backache.
  • Non-slip floors for both humans and cows - especially on steps.
  • No piping to knock head or arms.
  • Well-aligned clusters so cows milk out correctly.
  • A kick rail behind cows for human safety.
  • Minimal noise from machinery.
  • System that allows cows to be milked in as short a time as possible.
  • A "thank you" from the boss now and again.
  • Good wages and conditions - often the conditions come first.
Signs of contented cows

Cows keen to get to shed . Is this race wide enough for the herd size?
It's marginal.

  • They are keen to come in to be milked.
  • They stand quietly looking straight ahead .
  • Eyes bright and looking slightly down.
  • Chewing their cud.
  • Lying down with legs tucked under.
  • Breathing steadily through their nose.
  • Not concerned about the world around them.

Social dominance in the milking herd

Why are the same cows always at the back of the herd?
There are plenty of reasons and are worth finding out.

  • Old research showed that cows could recognise about 100 other cows in the herd, and sort out a social order among them.
  • A happy and hence productive cow knows her place and generally keeps to it. There are big benefits of doing this.
  • What happens in grazing groups of 250 or 500 cows or more? ; we don't know! This needs to be studied with some urgency as herd sizes build.
  • When grazing, cows should be able to find enough personal space for comfort. But when you see large mobs grazing with great competition for feed, you must wonder about cow welfare.
  • When leaving the paddock, low-rank cows wait till higher-rank ones have walked past them.
  • Dominant cows can stop low-rank cows drinking as they stand and idle near the trough. So heifers may not get drink till night, which has serious effects on production.
  • Cows must have access to adequate water troughs with enough room around them and high enough pressure to keep them full all the time, otherwise low-rank cows won't drink.
  • Putting a trough in the fence line to share between paddocks and save cost is not effective as it can cut drinking access in large groups.
  • Social order is important when the whole herd is walking home for milking. There's no problem with them going back to the paddock after milking as they go back in small groups.
  • As herds get larger, walking distances get longer. Some do up to 2.5km in one trip.
  • You find some dominant cows at the front, many dominant cows in the middle acting as the driving force, and low ranking (especially heifers) and sick cows are at the rear.
  • So the cows at the rear get the pressure from the person, pushed by the bike, and bitten by the dog, and they are the animals who can least afford this distress.
  • Contented cows walk with head down, and stressed cows walk with head up and cannot see where they are stepping. They get sore feet and lameness is a major cost of $365/cow/year in lost production and vet charges.
Training heifers for milking
  • The first milkings can be very stressful for heifers if they have not been trained.
  • The term "breaking in" is regularly used and for many heifers - that's exactly what it is. It should be "training" and not breaking in!
  • Good training really starts during calf rearing so that they are used to close contact with humans when it comes to time for them to enter the herd.
  • Then a few weeks before calving, if reared away from home (the usual system), the heifers come back and join the herd. Here they sort out their social order and it can be quite stressful, especially if there are some very dominant old cows in the herd.
  • It's good practice to do the following:
  • First put them through the yards and the milking parlour with all gates open.
  • Repeat the exercise and then hold them in the yard.
  • Repeat this and hold them in the bail of the herringbone or put them on the rotary with it stopped.
  • Next time switch on the machine and play music to accustom them to usual sounds.
  • Walk around behind them, touch them and massage their teats and udders.
  • Have more than one person in the parlour, moving around and talking.
To ensure success at heifer's first milking:
  • Make sure the cups don't suck air and squeak.
  • Don't let the cups fall off among her feet.
  • Keep her head up.
  • Make sure she cannot turn round in the bail or jump out.
  • Avoid over-milking. In fact it's probably better to under-milk her.
  • Keep your cool.
  • Rub her tail head and talk to her (low tones) when cups are on. Massage her udder and talk to her in low voice tones.
  • Don't let her get sore teats.
In practice some farmers avoid all this saying they haven't got time. So they resort to some very inhumane practices like squeezing the heifer between two older cows and slap the cups on and even apply some violence if she plays up. If you need to resort to physical violence and lose your cool, blame your management and not the heifer.

Milking plant faults that affect behaviour

A critical area - the entrance from yard on to rotary platform

There are many basic faults in farm dairies that cause cow behaviour problems. even in expensive new installations. Some examples are:
  • Poor concrete work that is too smooth - so cows slip over.
  • Concrete that is too rough and wears feet.
  • Poor concrete reinforcing allowing stray voltage in the parlour.
  • Holding yards that are too small so cows are too tight.
  • Poor cow flow so backing gates are made bigger and better - and electrified!
  • Poor lighting in the parlour so cows are reluctant to go in.
  • Pipework that jams the head of the first cow in the herringbone when the exit gate is released.
  • Bails too small for large cows and are not adjustable during season.
  • Dark doorways that cows see as threats and cause panic.
  • Blind right angle bends when cows have to leave the parlour
  • Clusters not aligned correctly behind cows, so cups are pulled over and some teats do not milk out evenly.
  • Pits that are too low for the milkers so they end up with backache and the cows suffer.
  • Repairs to the milking plant that never get done and that frustrate tired milkers, and again the cows suffer.

  • It's a good idea when planning a new plant to visit other plants working and talk to the milkers - not the salesmen. Offer to help milk their cows to see how things work and note cow and human behaviour.
  • Count how many times the cows dung each row in the herringbone. If there are more than two/row, there is a behaviour/management problem.

Training cattle to lead
  • This is best done when calves. Put a halter on the calf and tie it up for short periods (e.g. 30 minutes) twice a day, and feed the calf when it is tied.
  • Groom and handle it when tied up.
  • Then move the feed away some distance and lead the calf to the feed.
  • Then start to lead it around without feed - giving it a gentle push from behind as well as some light pressure on the lead. Get someone to help do the pushing.
  • Teaching mature stock to lead is not easy as they are so strong.
  • Use the tie up technique (30 minute spells) for 2-3 periods each day for a week, grooming and massaging at the same time. Offer some feed too while grooming.
  • Then try leading over short distances with help from an assistant pushing the animal from behind when it baulks. Don't let it get away on you or it will remember its success and do it again. Wear safety boots with plenty of grip.
  • To get animals used to halters and restraint, some stockpersons tie two animals of similar weights together with a 500mm chain including a swivel, so they get used to their heads being pulled.
  • Try this trick with animals of different weight so the large one teaches the lighter one to lead.
  • Some stud breeders use a donkey to teach show cattle to lead. The donkey and cattle beast are tied together with a short chain and swivel and are left to graze together for a few weeks.
  • If you have to start with older heavier animals (e.g. Mature cows and bulls), then it‘s hard work and can be dangerous. Some stockmen halter the beast to a frontend loader set at the height of the human handler who stands in the correct position. The tractor is then slowly reversed for very short intervals till the beast realises it has to move forwards and follow the handler. This should only be done for short intervals.

Solving milking problems
  • This is big business for special consultants.
  • A major problem is poor cow flow from the paddock to the milking parlour.
  • It's a good idea to go back to the paddock and follow the cows home.
  • It's also a good idea to get down and see the world from cow eye height.
  • Problem may not always be where you think they are. Remember the cows can remember and may not go into the parlour because they are scared to go out e.g. a slippy floor.
  • ALWAYS start off by checking the milking machine. There is nothing more important in cow comfort. It should have two checks by an approved service agent twice a year.
  • It's very revealing to video the milking and analyse it with the staff later. They often get some surprises to find the things they do and didn't realise it.

Welfare issues (dairy cows)
  • Calving problems – Dystocia.
  • Cow-calf separation - the stress involved.
  • Mastitis - the pain and stress.
  • The use of Intra Vaginal Devices and Inductions.
  • Lameness- the pain and stress of sore feet.
  • Metabolic diseases.
  • Downer cow management.
  • Flies.
  • Lack of shade and shelter
  • Horn damage
Horned and polled cattle should not be mixed - especially in close confinement
  • Dehorning/disbudding done without anaesthetics.
  • Ingrowing horns.
Not ingrowing yet but soon will be.

  • Tail docking - especially of adult cows.
  • Transport - the long distances cows travel to slaughter and cows ferry crossings.
  • Emaciation - skinny cows and why they are left to get to this state.
  • Heifers - introduction to herd.
  • Bobby calf - disposal and transport.
  • Castration - methods used in relation to the age of the animal.

Welfare issues (beef cattle).

  • Transport and handling.
  • Metabolic diseases.
  • Parasites - internal and external.
  • Calving problems – Dystocia.
  • Lack of shade and shelter.
  • Flies.
  • Rubbish lying around farms.

1 comment: