Bovine behavior and reproduction:
What are some of the unique adaptations of the cow?
One of the most unique and valuable adaptations of the cow is its ability to digest forage that grows on land that is not suitable for any other use. The cow is a ruminant (along with sheep and goats), an animal with four stomachs (rumen, omasum, abomasum and reticulum). This adaptation allows it to survive on roughage that other animals can not utilize. Calves do not start ruminating until about three months of age, after their digestive system becomes inoculated with microorganisms that gradually develop in the rumen.
What kind of social structure do cows display?
Cows have a herd structure. There will be a dominant cow with other cows subordinate to that animal. A pecking order is established. This order is especially evident at feeding and watering times.
How do cattle communicate?
Cows communicate just like all other animals do, through the use of body
language, vocalization and scent/pheromones.
Cattle, like horses, are animals of prey and very herd oriented. Their main form of defense is to run from a threat. They do not defend themselves in the same way as horses or use the same body language. Cattle spend much of their day ruminating, when ruminating they prefer to lie in the sternal position and are focused inward. (You may have had someone ask you what you are “ruminating over” when you are quite and deep in thought.) Cattle also do a lot of self grooming and groom each other also.
Cattle do not have an upper arcade of incisors so aggressive biting is not a problem. They do kick with their hind legs. Cows kick in an arc like motion, not straight back like most horses, so even someone standing beside a cow can be injured. Cows generally do not strike out with their front hooves. Their ears are not used to signal their emotions like horses.
Cattle may turn their entire body sideways as a show of dominance towards others, this “broad side threat” is considered passive-aggressive. An outwardly aggressive action is the pawing and frontal charge of an agitated bull. Some cows are highly protective of their calves and will also charge if they think their offspring is in danger.
Describe normal development of a calf:
One of the most important things to remember about calves is that they receive their immunity via the cow’s colostrum. It is therefore critical that calves be given at least 4 pounds of colostrum as soon after birth as possible, preferably within an hour after birth.
Discuss the reproductive cycle of the cow:
Cows reach puberty between 8-18 months of age, depending on the breed and
rate of growth (500-800 lbs. body weight).
Their estrous cycle is 14-24 days long (average 21 days).
There is a preheat period that lasts 6-10 hours.
Estrus itself (standing heat) lasts 4-30 hours.
Visual signs of estrus include swelling and redness of the vulva, restlessness, riding and being ridden by other cows.
Ovulation occurs about 12 hours after the end of estrus, so breeding should occur during the later half of the cow’s estrus period.
What are the characteristics of semen in the bull?
Scrotal circumference, physical examination and semen evaluations are used to assess the suitability of a bull for breeding. A bull should produce 2-15 ml of semen with a concentration of 300-2500 million spermatozoa/ml. Motility should be rapid vigorous wave motion.
Semen collection in bulls is quiet common. In the United States 70% or more of dairy cattle are artificially inseminated. In some countries like Denmark the rate is 100%. A bull can be collected using an artificial vagina or with the help of an electro ejaculator.
Semen is processed by diluting it with modified egg yolk-citrate and slow freezing in plastic straws. Straws are stored in containers of liquid nitrogen. If the liquid nitrogen is changed every 60-90 days, the semen will keep indefinitely. When semen is needed, the straws are slowly thawed in a warm water bath and inserted into the cow’s vagina or cervix utilizing a plunger attached to the straw.
Describe mating behavior in cattle:
A cow will accept the bull only during the actual estrus period. Cows that are in heat will exhibit telltale signs such as riding and being ridden by other cattle, both male and female..
Describe gestation and parturition in the cow:
Gestation in the cow lasts 240-330 days (average 283 days) depending on the
The cow develops a placenta with many small attachment sites called cotyledons. The cotyledons attach to the caruncles of the uterus to allow nutrient exchange between the cow and the calf.
Signs of impending parturition include development of the udder, swelling and reddening of the vulva, swelling of the teats, milk dripping from the teats, mucous discharge from the vulva, restlessness and separation from the herd.
Normal presentation of the calf is feet first with the head lying between the forelegs. The calf’s back will be against the cow’s back. Duration of parturition can vary, but 30 minutes is average. Any delivery that takes more than 2 hours should be cause for alarm and an indication to call the veterinarian. The afterbirth (placenta) is usually passed two to six hours after birth. If the placenta has not been expelled within 24 hours call the veterinarian. Cows often eat the placenta. This is normal behavior and will cause the animal no harm. The reason for this behavior is unknown. Some people theorize that it is to remove evidence of birth that might attract predators.
Most of the behavior information pertaining to cattle and livestock is in relation to increasing weight gain and profits at slaughter, for the most part these animals have not been kept as pets (the recent introduction of pot-bellied pigs as pets is the exception). The articles (links) below are written by a widely published behaviorist from Colorado, she has an unique insight into livestock behavior!
Website about dairy cattle welfare and care:
Website about how animals perceive the world and think, with emphasis on horses and livestock:
Website about handling livestock based on latest scientific research on
the sensory perception of livestock.
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