Kiss Your Cows Goodnight

Should you kiss your cows goodnight?

Ben Bartlett, DVM
Extension Dairy Agent
Upper Peninsula, Michigan

If you were "married" to your cows, would they be filing for divorce? I am sure there are times when you have wanted out of the cow business, but have you ever considered your cows' perspective? If you have read any farm magazines or listened to the news in the last 6 months, it's obvious that both the public and the dairy industry are very interested in animal welfare. Given the current increase in concern for cow comfort and improved animal handling techniques, I thought it would be interesting to "eavesdrop" on some cow conversations. Are your cows thinking positive things about their current state of affairs or are they thinking "divorce?"

(Disclaimer: The following comments may not reflect your cows' opinions. Your best bet would be to ask them yourself.)

As we pick up the conversation of Bossie and Bessie, Bos and Bes for short, Bos says:

"I am so stressed out! The new milker, Sammy, is driving me up a wall, literally. I am not eating right, getting my needed rest, and I'm scared to death to get into the parlor with him."

Bes says: "Well the stress is not all in your head. Jeff Rushen from Quebec did research and found that your milk production could be down 10% if Sammy was in the parlor and he doesn't even have to be doing the milking1. What's worse is that Sammy has us all on edge. Have you noticed how milking is taking longer? We are all stepping around and kicking off the milking machines more often. To make the situation worse, the owner is getting uptight because milking is taking longer, and now she is doing more yelling. Ed Pajor of Purdue found that yelling is as aversive to cattle as using a hot shot2. It sure has gotten more stressful around here."

Bos replies, "What I can't believe is that Sammy is supposed to be a college-trained milker! He doesn't know anything about working around us cows. You would think the owner would put all new employees through a training program for animal handling. People should notice that we have our eyes on the sides of our face and we can see over 300 degrees but have really poor depth perception."

"Yeah," says Bes, "Why can't they just give us a second or so to look over where we are going and not be in such a hurry all the time? It was OK for the owner to slow down when she got bifocals, but we are supposed to run everywhere even if we can't see our feet."

"My pet peeve is the noise. Sammy is always yelling and hollering," says Bos. "He can't wait a few seconds for me to walk into the parlor. He gets right behind me where I can't see him and starts screaming and pushing. And then he is surprised when he gets kicked. I don't think Sammy appreciates being tailgated by another car when he is driving."

Bes chimes in, "No one ever tells us anything. I just hate it when things are new or novel and people won't give us time to sort it out. How are we supposed to know if it's dangerous or going to hurt us? People should know that cows are creatures of habit and a new gate, a coat hanging on the fence, or anything new takes us a few positive experiences to be comfortable with it."

Bos says "If profit margins are down, I sure don't understand some things people do. That new heifer, Betty, just calved the other day. I hear they paid $2000 for her and she had never been in a milking parlor before. Three people hollered and pushed her into the parlor and then slapped a 'can't kick' and a milker on her. Kate Breuer from Australia found heifers that were hit or rushed into and out of a parlor produced 3 pounds less milk per day compared to more gently handled heifers3. Betty is so afraid that I don't think she will last even one whole lactation. She is so afraid of people that she slipped and fell three times when they sorted her out for a post-calving check. It's sad, a great heifer with all that potential and people don't have time to make her first experience in a parlor a positive one."

"Bes, if you could talk to dairymen, what would you tell them?" asked Bos.

Bes replied "The first thing would be, handling cows more gently will make them more milk and more money. Hemsworth from Australia did a study with 14 dairy farms and measured fearfulness in cows. He found that 30% to 50% of the variance in milk production between farms could be explained by the level of fear shown by the cows to humans4. Seabrook found in a study of 12 very similar farms that a change in stockman could change production by over 1250 pounds of milk per cow per year5. Gentle handling pays."

Bos asked, "That's great for the dairyman but what about us? How can dairymen do things 'more gently'?"

Bes replied, "We could tell dairymen lots of things but they are so busy they will just forget. Gentle cattle handling boils down to having knowledge of cow behavior, practicing good handling skills, and having and maintaining adequate facilities. Cows see and hear differently than people. We are prey animals and people are predators to us. We need to learn not to fear humans. Hollering, hitting, and doing things in a hurry only increase our fear of humans. Cows are creatures of habit. If only people would give us a kind word and a gentle stroke when we are calves and treat us with understanding and respect. We do pay the bills after all, we could work as a team. Gentle handling can benefit both the dairymen and cows."

Cows don't need a kiss goodnight. If dairymen and their helpers would just remember, Slow and Quiet, it would be a great first step to building a better relationship. It could also decrease the divorce rate. 


  1.  Rushen J., de Passille. A.M.B., and Musksgaard,L. 1997; J. Dairy Sci.80(Suppl.1):202
  2. Pajor, E. A.,Rushen,J.,& de Passille,A.M.B.; 2000; Applied Animal Behavior Sci., 69:89-102
  3. Roenfeldt, S.;2001, Dairy Herd Mang. September, 2001, page 34
  4. Hemsworth, P. H., Price, E.O., & Borgwardt, R.,. 1996 Applied Animal Behavior Sci.,50:43-56
  5. Seabrook, M.F.; 1984, The Veterinary Record, 115:84-87.