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Understanding teenagers in the dairy herd

Just like teenagers, cows are influenced by the group around them and need to be given choices, independence and rules, said New Zealand vet Neil Chesterton in a recent AHDB webinar.

Herds are mostly followers and they are never happier than when they are following the animal in front of them
Herds are mostly followers and they are never happier than when they are following the animal in front of them

Mr Chesterton explained an understanding of this mentality could enable livestock farmers to see their herd differently and help improve cow flow.

 

He said: “Firstly, we need to think about the herd rather than individual cows. They are a prey animal so even the quietest herds are looking out for threats. Frightening them, increases arousal across the whole herd. You need to keep this as low as possible if you want to have good cow flow.”

 

He added that cows have personal space just like humans.

 

“If we step into it, we create stress and they will move away.”

 

Balance point

 

Instead, he advised to use a cow’s balance point, which is around shoulder level, to move them gently.

 

He said: “Keep out of their space, walk gently past their balance point and they will move forward.”

 

He also reminded farmers that with eyes on either side of their head, cows can see almost all the way around to spot any predators.

 

“They have a small blind spot at the rear so if you stand behind them, they will turn their head and walk in that direction – not necessarily the way you want them to go.”

 

Walking

 

When walking, Mr Chesterton said cows would have their head down looking for a safe place to put their front foot.

 

“They do not worry about their back foot as it will land in exactly the same place. Conversely, having their heads up is a sign of pressure, so make sure you give them plenty of time and space.”

 

He also said that because cows recognised people it was important not to let their first experience of a new person be a ‘painful thing’.

 

He added: “Studies have shown that 50 per cent of a herd are naturally high fear animals, so if you can reduce it, you will get better cow flow.

 

Dominant cows

 

Similar to human social groups, Mr Chesterton said herds have a ‘pecking order’, with dominant, leader and follower cows. In his studies, he found that it was dominant cows which set the speed of walking and cow flow. They push the leaders and pull the followers. And no matter how much pressure we put on them, they will set the pace and will not go any faster than they want to.

 

Mr Chesterton added giving cows space and time to find their own order was important.

 

“Herds are mostly followers and they are never happier than when they are following the animal in front of them.

 

“It is amazing how consistent their walking order is, although this tends to be different to the order they come into the parlour for milking.”

 

Cow routine

  • Consistent routine is good for cow flow and this routine must be followed by everyone on the milking team
  • Cows are creatures of habit, so like routine and will respond to it
  • Whatever the approach on your farm – filling stalls, cupping, teat spraying, backing gates – make sure the whole team do jobs consistently
  • Different people must follow a routine until the cows get to know them
  • Avoid having one person listening to the radio if others do not. Everybody must do it the same way

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