Cow Comfort: The cow

By definition, most dairy farmers deal with cows on a day-to-day basis. While it is no surprise, then, that dairy farmers should know as much a possible about cows in order to maintain a profitable dairy operation, it is worth revisiting a few key behavioural aspects all dairy farmers should keep in mind when working with their herd to ensure maintaining optimal levels of productivity. We have outlined a few important points below. 

Natural behaviour

Checking up on cow comfort can sometimes mean going back in time a little, in order to find out what the "natural" behaviour of a cow actually implies. In earlier times, cows were kept on pasture and able to follow natural behaviour patterns. However, these patterns have been constrained as cows have been moved into barns and stables. To judge the level of cow comfort, it is most important to know how a cow acts and behaves naturally. The more natural her behaviour is inside the barn, the better it will be for her, the farmer and her productivity. Below is a simplified daily time budget for lactating dairy cattle.

Daily time budget for lactating dairy cow
Activity Time devoted to activity per day
Eating 3 to 5 hours (9 to 14 meals per day)
Lying/resting 12 to 14 hours
Social interactions 2 to 3 hours
Ruminating 7 to 10 hours
Drinking 30 minutes
Outside pen (milking, travel time) 2.5 to 3.5 hours

Source: Grant, Rick: Incorporating dairy cow behavior into management tools.

Fear of isolation

Cows are herd animals and become highly stressed when separated from the rest of the group. It has been found, for example, that a cow left alone in a stanchion has an increased count of leukocytes in her milk. It is therefore advised to move animals into groups and have them follow the leader.


Cows are more sensitive to noise than humans. Cows’ ears are most sensitive to high frequency noises of 8000 Hz, while humans are most sensitive to frequencies of 1000 to 3000 Hz. For this reason, cows may be more sensitive to grating noises. like metal rubbing on metal, than people. Intermittent and strange noises are especially stressful to cows. Cows that normally live a quiet life will be more noise sensitive than cows that do not. In a Texas study, a ringing telephone significantly increased the heart rate of the calves on pasture. Continuously playing the radio at a normal sound level can help cows with tolerating unexpected noises, for instance.


Cows have wide-angle vision and have a visibility range of 300 degrees. But cows only have 3-D vision looking directly in front, so this is the only direction in which they can estimate distances well. Blocking their vision by using solid chutes and gates can reduce their stress during handling. Cows can also see colours and will balk at sudden colour changes. They recognize people by the colour of their clothes. If a cow needs treatment that could hurt her, it is important to wear right-coloured clothing and to perform the treatment in a special place, instead of her stall or the parlour.


A cow has her own defined escape zone surrounding her, and when another animal or human passes the border of this zone she will react by attacking, socialising or escaping. The size of the zone depends on the character of the cow; a calm cow needs a smaller personal space than a nervous cow. Heifers need a bigger personal space than older animals. During a cow’s life, her personal space decreases as she becomes more accustomed to people and their living environment. As cows age, they frequently become higher in rank too, so they are no longer afraid of other cows.


All herds have a social hierarchy. It is usually shown by head bunting, pushing or avoidance. Heifers that are raised together tend to associate together and be less aggressive towards each other. Grouping strategy impacts social interactions. Over-crowding will usually increase the negative effects of social interactions. In one study where feed was limited and competition was high, dominant cows ate 23 percent more feed than submissive cows. Fresh cows, first-calf heifers and recently moved cows are often submissive in a group. Larger cows, older cows and cows with more seniority in a group are often more dominant.

In every herd there is at least one dominant cow called the ‘bull cow’. This cow behaves differently to her herd mates. For instance, when all the cows walk away from a farmer, this cow tends to walk towards him or her. Many farmers actually do not know their bull cow(s), but it is worth spending some time trying to figure out who she is.

Data on different breeds

All over the world different breeds of cows are used to produce milk. The most common breeds are Holstein, Friesian, Jersey and Brown Swiss. The composition of their milk varies between different breeds and during lactation within breeds.

Breeds across the world
BreedFat percentageProtein percentageLactose percentage
Brown Swiss 3.80 3.38 4.80
Holstein 3.56 3.02 4.61
Jersey 4.97 3.65 4.70
Egyptian buffalo 7.90 4.00 4.80
Ayrshire 3.86 3.15 4.60

For more articles of our Cow Comfort series, visit our MilkMatters section.