23 Reasons Why Cattle Act the Way They Do

Did you ever wonder why cattle act the way they do? Learn more with these 23 facts about cattle behavior that are provided by Dr. Clive Dalton.

1. Cattle are large ruminants that digest fibrous feed but cannot graze as close to the ground as sheep. They sweep grass into their mouths with their long tongues before tearing it off with their bottom teeth against a top hard dental pad before swallowing it for digestion in the rumen.

2. They are a herding species with a clearly developed social hierarchy but when disturbed, they don’t gather together like sheep.

3. Cattle are a “lying out” species where calves don’t follow their dams all the time like lambs and suckle at frequent intervals. In the early weeks of life cows leave their calves in crèches and go back to suckle them 2-3 times a day.

4. Cattle are ruminants that digest fibrous feed in their 3 fore-stomachs (rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum). The abomasum is the true gastric stomach.

5. Digestion of fiber produces mainly carbon dioxide and methane which is released by belching. If this mechanism fails and gas builds up, the cattle can die with bloat. Being a ruminant dictates their entire behavior.

6. Cattle divide their day into periods of:


Taking in feed using their prehensile (grasping) tongue and bottom teeth. Feed goes into the rumen via the abomasum (honeycomb bag) where heavy objects collect like medicinal boluses and bits of wire. High-yielding dairy cows must spend at least 8-10 hours per day grazing to meet their nutritional needs. Beef cattle have much less pressure and stress to live with.


The feed is chewed, formed into a ball (bolus) with saliva and swallowed. An adult cow produces about 100 quarts of saliva each day. A dairy cow makes 30,000 to 40,000 grazing bites per day.


Here feed is given time to ferment in the large rumen by micro-organisms and the cow does this both standing and lying down.


Here the grass bolus in the rumen is belched up again for a second chewing (mastication) of around 300 chews per bolus. The feed is re-swallowed back into the omasum which is like the leaves in a book for final grinding. It then passes into the abomasum for gastric digestion.


The cow stands still appearing to do nothing but it’s a time of active rumen fermentation.


Long periods of lying down (ruminating) and short periods of sleep.


This may require quite a lot of time in walking to a water source. a mature cow in milk drinks about 70 quarts of water each day.

7. The position of the cow’s eyes means it has a narrow 25-50° binocular vision while looking ahead, but a very wide almost 360° peripheral vision looking around its sides. Cattle are very concerned to check the narrow blind spot at their rear by regular head movements and changing their body position when grazing.

8. A cow’s eyes are designed to see down rather than up and when alarmed they will raise the head to investigate.

9. Cattle can recognize different people from their shape and color of clothing although they have limited color vision.

10. They are aware of numbers and regularly associate more than one person with pain or stress of injections or forced handling when extra humans appear.

11. Cattle have an imaginary “point of balance” just behind the shoulder and you can use this to get them to move. If you move ahead of this point, the beast will move back, and if you move behind it then it will move forward. They also have a point of balance in the center of their head so if you move to the right of it, the beast will move to the left, and vice versa.

12. Cattle are sensitive to high frequency sounds which people cannot hear, and these can increase arousal, while low tones are more relaxing. Music is regularly used in milking parlors to provide cows with a familiar background noise to create a sense of normality. They easily adapt to the full range of music from hard rock to hymns and from low volume to head-splitting.

13. Cattle have a better sense of smell than people. The smell of blood (from both cattle and sheep) can cause great panic and has been seen when cattle passed paddocks treated with blood and bone fertilizer. For some unknown reason, this panic reaction was not consistent and has not yet been explained.

14. Cattle have a very sensitive skin and can flick flies off from localized areas.

15. Cows respond well to touch and use it as an important form of communication among each other.

16. Mutual grooming is important in cattle, especially in mature animals, and dams lick and groom their calves right up to weaning. Touch is important for handlers to warn cows where the humans are – e.g., when milking.

17. Adult cattle sleep very little and in very short spells. The sleeping pose is all four legs tucked under and head turned to face the rear.

18. Cattle must be well settled and comfortable before they’ll sleep. If animals are disturbed at night, they will sleep more during the day.

19. Sleep and rest have big implications for the design of cubicles, loafing areas, and feed pads. If stock cannot rest when they desire, they become very tired, get sore feet and production and health are affected.

20. Cattle remember single events for a considerable time, certainly for weeks and often even for months. Humans ignore this at their peril. One really bad experience with a single human will put cattle off all people for a considerable time. They can often remember an individual human, mainly from visual outline and dress such as the veterinarian in green overalls. Smokers who gave regular monthly injections in a program made cows very agitated when any other smoker arrived at milking time. It can take a long time to restore a positive human/animal bond. It can take an entire year to change the behavior of cows who have been badly managed.

21. Cattle use a range of body signals to communicate with each other. They use “eyes down” to show submission, and “eyes up” to show confidence.

22. The cow’s tail is important too, when held tight down to show a relaxed mood, half up to show alertness and held high to show panic.

23. A stressed cow or bull will usually defaecate profusely too with tail up.

Provided by animal scientist Dr. Clive Dalton.

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