Normal Cow Behavior

Cows differ widely in temperament. Some are always gentle; others are quite active, alert, and somewhat nervous under normal conditions and very excitable under stress. Most cows exhibit normal behavior patterns and respond to kindness and superior herd management. However, from time to time, a few animals in every herd develop behaviors which interfere with regular herd routine:

  1. Stray voltage/current problems can accentuate differences in temperament. However, other management problems can have similar effects.
  2. Concentrating animals (decreasing the surface area per animal), or introducing new animals into the herd, can increase aggressiveness in the herd.
  3. Most cows kick because they are frightened, are in pain, or have been mistreated.
  4. Tail-switching is sometimes used to express intense emotion. Restrained animals in a fearful situation tail-switch more than usual as they struggle against restraint.
  5. Cows are often called creatures of habit. They notice and respond to any unusual change in their routine.

Predictability and controllability of stimuli are important concepts which help us to understand how cows perceive and interpret electrical currents. Predictability involves the ability of a cow to predict when it will receive a current flow. Controllability has to do with whether the cow can avoid the current. The extremes for controllability are:

  • Absolute control at essentially no cost in effort, and
  • No control regardless of energy expended.

One of the most distressing situations for an animal is to be able to readily predict but be unable to control (in other words, avoid) exposure to current flow. This distress is compounded if for some reason the animal believes the current could be avoided when in reality it is unavoidable.

For example, a cow may know that she has a good chance of receiving an electric shock if she enters the milking parlor, so she decides not to enter the milking parlor. The farmer, however, forces her into the parlor, thus thwarting her apparent ability to avoid exposure. Forcing the cow into the parlor under these circumstances could result in physiological and psychological responses that could be even more damaging than the response to the shock itself.

The conditioning aspect of electric shock has important consequences for stray voltage/current problems on farms. Adverse behavior may be learned or, alternatively, cows may be conditioned to respond to some stimuli indirectly associated with shock. Even when the shock stimulus is removed by fixing the underlying electrical problem, the animals may continue to respond to the stimulus they had previously associated with shock.

Dairy cows must be trained to the milking routine. Key aspects during milking are that:

  • They stand quietly,
  • Allow the udder to be handled without kicking, and
  • Avoid defecating or urinating.

Cows should have a good milk let-down response with minimal stimulation, and milk out quickly. When current passing through animals range from 3.0 to 6.0 mA, any loss in milk production appears to be primarily due to the way the operator handles the animals. As indicated by experiments under controlled conditions and by many field observations, animals affected by such currents may cause the operator to become frustrated and less patient and thus employ inconsistent, hurried, and less desirable milking practices.

Mastitis: Attempts have been made to link mastitis with stray voltage. Mastitis is a fact of life in the dairy industry. Mastitis is caused by infection of the udder and not electricity. Animal susceptibility and treatment as well as milking and hygiene practices are directly related to problems with mastitis. Electrical current can affect the incidence of mastitis only indirectly. For example, a milking machine kicked off by a cow in response to current exposure may be reattached without first being cleaned.
It is important to emphasize factors such as:

  • The mistreatment of cows,
  • Milking machine problems,
  • Disease,
  • Poor sanitation, and
  • Nutritional disorders.

All of these may cause cows to manifest any of the symptoms that can be associated with stray voltage/current problems.