Cow Behaviour

A cow should be given the ability to behave naturally, including walking normally and freely, and have enough space and light to do so. If she is unable to walk freely, her gait, stance and ability to feed, drink, rest, produce and reproduce will all be compromised.

The Farm Animal Welfare Council in the UK (1979); compiled a list of “five freedoms” to focus on when assessing animal needs and welfare. They are:

  • Freedom from thirst, hunger or malnutrition
  • Freedom from discomfort and exposure
  • Freedom from injury and disease
  • Freedom of movement and the opportunity to express most normal behavioural patterns
  • Freedom from fear.

This is relatively easy to achieve in a grass-based system where cows are outside all year round, but can be extremely difficult to achieve and maintain in an intensive system where cattle are housed. Whatever system you use to rear your cows and produce milk, you should bear these freedoms in mind and aim to enable them as far as possible under your particular circumstances.

Natural walking behaviour

If a cow stands and walks well, there is little overloading of her joints, tendons or hooves, as weight bearing is more or less equally distributed between claws and legs, and each sole and wall are loaded proportionally. A healthy cow in ideal conditions or on pasture, should walk with large strides placing the rear foot into the position vacated by the front foot on the same side. On slippery floors, or in dark conditions that alter a cow’s confidence, she places her rear foot outside the track of the front foot while altering her stride, step length and walking speed.


An adult cow uses her rear feet for propulsion. As she pushes off to stride, most pressure is on the lateral claws of her back feet, especially if she is trying to flee a stressful situation such as pressure from a more dominant cow. She will lean sideways onto another cow by using her hind foot to propel her away from the danger. This is why most traumatic injuries occur on this claw in cows. In heifers, however, the opposite is true. They are often pressured by more dominant cows but use the medial claws on their front feet to push back and away from danger. Therefore, traumatic damage in heifers is mostly seen in the front medial claw.

Environmental influences on behaviour

Environmental conditions unquestionably influence behaviour. Cows in a grass-based system are outside all year round and not housed in a barn, so are likely to experience most of the five freedoms and be able to display the most natural behaviour. Even here, there will still be constraints however: for instance if the pasture is poor quality or the weather is bad, and particularly when it’s milking time. Cows are herd animals and have 300 degree vision, but they only have 3D vision directly in front, so this is the only direction in which they can estimate distances well. They therefore need time and space to walk at their own pace, enabling them to use their head as a counter balance and to watch where they are placing their front feet.

By placing her rear foot in the position vacated by the front foot, the cow also safeguards her back feet. In a grass-based system, cows need to travel long distances to and from the parlour, so good hoof health is vital. Problems occur when animals are pushed too quickly up the track and into a collecting yard to be milked, especially if track management is not optimal. Most lameness in these systems results from wear and tear on the hooves or damage to the sole, white line or interdigital skin.

In a loose-housed or free-stall cubicle barn, the duration and timing of standing or lying behaviour (which is crucial for milk synthesis), can be influenced by the quality of cubicles or bedding. The choice of flooring and lighting influences walking behaviour, foot health (including the severity and location of claw horn lesions) and movement. Foot placement, length of stride, step and walking speed provide indicators of cow health and the quality of the environment. For instance, cows walking slowly but not displaying any signs of lameness are often a sign of poor quality walkways rather than something wrong with the feet.

Factors influencing the ability to display natural behaviour, such as housing design, stocking density and competition, temperature, ventilation and humidity, floor hygiene and bedding.

Daily time budget

In order to judge whether cows are displaying natural behaviour, if they are controllable or if they are showing signs of lameness, it’s important to know how a cow acts naturally. To do this we can look at daily time budgets for lactating cows and examine the animals in question are showing normal behaviour patterns and, if not, where the variation lies.

SKMBT_C28013112614550Typical example of a daily time budget for lying down in stalls (TDIS), standing up in stalls (TUIS), time standing up in alleys (TUIA), time standing up feeding (TUF) and time standing up milking (TUM) in 73 normal, 37 slightly lame and 10 moderately lame cows. The bar chart compared six sand bedded farms and six with rubber mats (Cook 2004)

Under normal conditions, a TMR-fed, loose-housed dairy cow spends around three to five hours a day feeding, 0.5 hours a day drinking, up to two hours a day standing in the stall, around two hours a day standing in the alleys socialising and approximately 12-14 hours a day lying down.

Importance of lying behaviour

Lying down is hugely important, as the cow ruminates during most of this time; a reduction in lying time reduces milk production. Lying down also gives a cow time to rest her hooves and give them a chance to dry, it means there is more space for the others to walk around, and the blood circulation in the udder increases by up to 25-30 percent, meaning production can be increased.

If lying time is significantly reduced, there is generally a good explanation – uncomfortable beds, for example. This is probably the most common reason for a reduction in lying time.

Many studies emphasise that a reduction of three hours lying time per day can have a detrimental effect on claw health. The extent of this is often determined by the nature of the standing surface available between bouts of lying, and if the surface is particularly hard there may well be problems with a large proportion of the herd.

Lactation stage also affects lying time, with those cows in early lactation often spending more time lying than those in later lactation or dry. However, Huney et al (2005) reported that cows approaching parturition stand more often than those before or after.

Lame cow lying behaviour It is important to be aware that although cows with a locomotion score of 1 will most likely not display much difference in time budget behaviour between reasonably soft bed surfaces, lame cows do. They are very sensitive to the material used as it can hinder their ability to rise or lie. This study used a locomotion scoring system of 1-4 and compared sand beds to mattresses filled with rubber pieces. It shows that although the non-lame cows do not particularly differ in their lying time between either surface — leading to the assumption that either is fine to use (although they stand in the alleys slightly less often with sand) — the lame cows lie for a much shorter time on the more uncomfortable rubber filled mats. For a cow that is already lame, this poses many problems, so it’s also important to research the effect surfaces will have on the less able cows.

A further complication can be that the cows not only stand, but they stand still, which means the blood-pumping mechanism of the heel and digital cushion is inactive. This results in inefficient blood circulation into, around and back out of the hoof, causing poor horn formation.

A study performed in the UK by Blackie et al (2008), and many others, documents that lame cows with a locomotion score of 3 spend longer lying once they have got down than non-lame cows, which could influence the level of milk production. It is suggested that watching the ly­ing behaviour of cows could also be used to detect lameness. A hugely important point to remember is that crucial as the bedding surface is, so too is the cubicle design as the problem is multi factorial.

Information kindly provided by DeLaval UK