Easy Does It…Low-Stress for Dairy Cows

Methods for Dairy Cow Safety

The key word is patience. A good stockman will tell you that if you practice low-stress cattle handling on your operation you should expect to see positive production and lower rates of illness and mortality. Low-stress cattle handling uses the natural adaptive characteristics of the cow to induce and direct movement. Moving cattle slowly is best. Every time you handle cattle it’s important to keep in mind that you are the determining factor of how cattle will react to human behaviors down the road. When cattle are stressed, they can become a danger to themselves and their handlers. Poor handling skills could result in a disconnection between the handler and the livestock. In order to have a lucrative dairy operation there are three factors all dairy farmers and handlers need to consider for a thriving operation: anatomy, instinct and experience.

11976115 – angus cross beef cattle in a summer field near oakland oregon


Cattle communicate through their five senses but the most important ones for low-stress are sight, touch and hearing. Cattle see the world differently than we do. They see in two colors so everything appears as shadows and bright areas. That is why diary cows are frightened by bright spots in pens or shadows in milking parlors. Cattle cannot see directly behind them and worry when people are in their blind spot. The best place to let a cow see you is from her side. They also have good peripheral vision from a grazing pasture, but cannot see well when viewing objects above the horizontal plane. When cows move their head up and down it allows them to see objects better.

Keeping noise to a minimum is crucial in low-stress handling. Dairy cows have sensitive hearing especially towards auditory contact with people. This is very frightening to cows and can create a bad memory of that situation or place. They can hear any loud noise but have difficulty pinpointing where it came from. One unique characteristic is that they can tell the difference between sound directed at them and the sound of equipment or machines around them.


Cattle have four touch receptors: pressure, pain, warmth and cold. Herdsmen need to create trust between themselves and their animals when moving them. If they apply pressure in front of the shoulder, cattle go backwards or turn away. Putting pressure behind the shoulder will ask them to go forward. This technique takes practice and patience. Pressure cattle where they can see you and only one person should pressure at a time.




Cattle are prey animals. They have natural reactions to the environment around them. Cattle evolved with survival tactics like keeping an eye on anything that approaches, listening for danger sounds, and moving away if an approaching creature gets too close.

Understanding a cow’s flight zone is essential to handling them. The flight zone is the point at which a cow no longer tolerates the approach of a person or other animal and moves away. If anything unfamiliar enters a cow’s flight zone, it will spook the cow. A cow’s first instinct is to run with the herd. Dairymen and women can use this to their advantage. To move the cows, a person needs to walk slowly into the cows; flight zone. This will get the herd moving without sending them into total panic.

The flight zone response is a learned behavior and can be modified. A cow’s tolerance to being approached depends on the frequency of contact with the handler, her previous experiences with the handler, and the genetics of the particular animal. The more contact an animal has, the shorter the flight zone gets. With practice, cattle learn that pressure on the flight zone is relieved when they move in the desired direction. It is important to recognize the collective flight zone of the herd and then make adjustments to suit the temperament of the animals.



Cows like routines with the same experience each time. New routines can upset cows and should be avoided. If new routines occur and are unavoidable, handlers should proceed slowly and remain patient. Cattle should be approached with confidence. They are large animals and need respect and that’s why they act the way they do. They are quick learners and can learn that being chased can lead to increased fear and distress. Cattle are more distressed by being sorted out to go single file up a chute with people hollering at them than they are by vaccination. It is extremely important that we make cattle’s first experience with handling or new environments as stress-free as possible.



Proper cow handling adds to good milk ability and can directly affect production. Contact between cows and handlers can be either pleasant or unpleasant. Cows have a pleasant reaction to patting, stroking and touching. They have an unpleasant reaction to being slapped around the head and nose or hit with a stick or hose. Using low-stress animal handling methods can greatly increase the efficiency of moving animals throughout the far. We always need to be honest with cattle and let them see where we are. BE aware of which senses are being stimulated, and work to avoid startle. Just remember, less stress for you and the cattle.


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