Dairy Cow Personality

I love the personality of dairy cows. We reach underneath them twice a day to  milk them, so they learn quickly how to behave (or else get sold!). A dairy cow must be as trustworthy as possible for the safety of humans. She tends to also be very intelligent. She learns to walk by lead or independently. She pastures for food within walking distance of the milking area and water. Some grow up going to county fairs and dairy shows, or being sold and transported around the country. They adapt and mature and settle into routines that are highly intertwined with humans.

If you are new to working with cattle in general, I recommend reading and watching Temple Grandin teach on cattle handling techniques to get a feel for what cows are thinking and why they react to situations the way they do.

In my experience with dairy cattle, compared to other types of animals, there are a few things I’ve learned with being around them:

  • Quiet!

    • At milking time, a cow needs a calm place to let down her milk. If someone comes in with a loud voice, clanging and banging, the cow becomes stressed and may not let down her milk properly. If this happens often, she may stop wanting to come to the parlor to be milked or she may dry up her milk supply or develop mastitis. Or she may kick the person to tell them to hush up!
  • Routine.

    • For similar reasons as above, a cow desires routine. Most dairy cows react poorly to change, because it’s in their nature to be content with a similar routine day after day. We have had some cows that thrive on routine and fall apart at the slightest change. Stress affects the health of a dairy cow in many ways and is best if avoided.
    • If change is necessary, make changes as gradual as possible so that you deceive her into the change without her realizing it. For example, if the main person milking is going to be gone for a milking, have the relief milker attend a milking prior to your leaving. Have that person talk to and pet the cow. Let her know you’re nice and friendly and care about her and she may just be fine with having someone else milk her (as long as you change nothing else of the routine).
  • Intelligence.

    • Expect the dairy cow to be smarter than you. She will find a hole in the fence or make one. She can detect when the electric fence is off. She can smell when you clean the milking area and stress over the change. She will hide her newborn calf for protection. She will eat twine and plastic like candy (not smart behavior…but one that can kill a cow from our lack of cleanliness in cleaning up.) Try to think three steps ahead of a dairy cow and you may just keep up with her.
  • Line of Sight

    • A cow is a “prey” animal and her instincts reflect that nature. We found that our cows did much better in our new “parlor” that is open air where the cows can see out and see what is going on around her. The cows like being able to see the other cows while they’re being milked. I firmly believe this is because they don’t want the other cows getting access to feed while they’re “stuck” being milked. They want to know that they all get to go back to pasture or back to the hay bunk at the same time.
    • Cows do not see well, so their movements can become inhibited if they are required to back up, step up/down, etc. Work towards gradual slopes in place of steps and walk throughs instead of having to back up.
  • Memory.

    • Cows have incredible memories. If a cow slips on a floor surface, you can bet that she’ll refuse or hesitate for several days when returning to that area. This is very important in the milking area, because she goes there twice a day. Take precautions to avoid any hazards. Cows also remember barking/biting dogs, being hit by people, getting shocked by electric, etc. Avoid these when possible because patience pays off over time and you’ll have a better cow for it.


Behavioral Principles of Livestock Handling

Three Ways to Improve Dairy Handling for Low Stress and High Production

The Case for Low-Stress Livestock Handling