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Proper Cattle Handling Maximizes Milk Production

Proper Cattle Handling Maximizes Milk Production
Preventing fear memories is especially important the first time dairy animal enters a new place or comes into contact with something new such as milking equipment.

By Mark Mayer

There is a great deal of research documenting the impacts of fear and stress levels on milk production.  Foremost in understanding how to reduce fear in cattle is to understand how fear operates in cows. When a cow experiences fear, it typically associates that fear with a bad place or a prominent object. Cattle store fear memories in a part of the brain called the amygdata. The memories stored there serve in part as an animal's defense. For example, helping a cow to remember things like the location where a predator attacked - which was important to know as a prey animal. 

When you bring a cow into the barn for the first time you don't want to yell or hit her and you don't want her slipping and falling down.

Memory snap shots
Cattle store those memories like pictures in a photo album. Although cows aren't good at recognizing specific people; they're very good at recalling places, smells, voices and distinctive clothing. For example, if a cow was kicked or electrically prodded by a person in a yellow raincoat as a heifer, all yellow raincoats, or anything that resembles a yellow raincoat, might scare her as a cow. Over time animals can learn to override a fear memory and become less fearful, but that fear is never fully erased. This means that farmers must work to prevent fear memories rather than try to override them. 

Preventing fear memories is especially important the first time an animal enters a new place or comes into contact with something new such as milking equipment. This is why it's very important to make sure that an animal's first experience with something new is a good one.  For example, when you bring a heifer into the barn for the first time, you don't want to yell or hit her, and you don't want her slipping and falling down. That creates a fear memory that will be detrimental for milk production as she will develop a fear of the milking parlor or stall.  Bring heifers in the parlor or stall slowly. Although it might take some extra time, it will pay off in the long run.

While a new experience can be very stressful, an experience in which an animal is allowed to approach voluntarily is often too tempting to resist. Take a tractor and TMR wagon parked in the feedlot, the cows will approach it on their own and will more than likely have, all the hydraulic hoses ripped off by the time you return, due to the cows' natural curiosity.


Creating a situation in which cows can approach new experiences at their own pace can help train them to scary experiences. This certainly holds true when entering the stall or milking parlor for the first time. When an animal voluntarily does something, it's going to be less stressful than when we force it to do something. Allowing heifers to voluntarily enter the milking stall or parlor prior to freshening to get them acclimated can be very helpful.

New experiences require a good share of calm handling techniques; but everyday handling experiences also need attention. One of the most important handling tips is to avoid shouting.  One study showed that screaming at cows produced the same unfavorable results as an electric prod.  The quiet handling of animals pays. This includes minimizing noise from gates, squeeze chutes, hydraulics and other equipment to help keep cattle calm.

The use of electric prods, flailing arms and cranking tails should be avoided if at all possible. The use of plastic paddles is recommended in place of electric prods. Cattle handlers should also avoid flailing their arms as sudden, jerky motions are associated with predators, and easily frighten cows.  And for those that need to crank tails, make sure you let go when she takes a step forward. Don't keep cranking her tail, let her know when she's doing something right.

Visual distractions should also be eliminated from cattle areas. Cattle notice the little things we don't, such as a strand of wind-whipped baler twine tied to a gate.  Other distractions that might cause cattle to balk could include a shiny reflection, a dangling chain, a water puddle, a drain grate, a coat hanging on a fence, or a shadow.  Keep in mind that cattle have very poor depth perception. They really can't tell if that gutter you want them to cross is only a foot or ten feet deep. That's why many times newly freshened heifers will hesitate and jump when forced to go over a gutter for the first time. 

Cattle are also not able to see actually see where they place their front feet. To compensate for this blind spot they have learned to walk in lines and create cow paths. Through evolution they learned that if they walked in the same line as the cow in front of then nothing bad (like stepping in a hole) would happen to them.  This is also why the boss cow never actually leads the herd when being moving in a barn or pasture. They've learned as a prey animal that the safest place to be is in the middle of the herd.

Speaking of boss cows, remember that every herd has a social pecking order. Newly freshened cows entering the herd will not willingly drink, eat or lay down next to a dominate cow. This fear is why it's important to have plenty of bunk space and to also offer cross alleys at the end of freestalls. The cross alleys make less dominate cows more willing to enter those resting areas knowing they have a way to escape an encounter with a dominate cow.

When it comes to animal handling most of these improvements have little or no cost, but can go a long way in preventing animal stress and maximizing production.

Mayer is the Green County Extension dairy and livestock agent.
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