Many of the people who work with dairy animals today did not grow up on farms and have had little to no exposure to farm animals until they were adults,” points out one of the industry’s leading experts on the subject of stockmanship. “Many of today’s farm workers do not have the early life experiences that give them an understanding of dairy animal behaviors,” he adds.

Stockmanship paysIndeed, we would all benefit from a better understanding of animal behavior, says Don Höglund, adjunct assistant professor at University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, principle at, and animal trainer.

What is stockmanship?

With no clear definition, dairy “stockmanship” is loosely defined as the interactions that occur between people and dairy cattle with the intention to create a positive experience for both.

“Every time you work with an animal, you influence them — good or bad,” says Jim Lewis, a dairy field specialist for Vita Plus in northwest Wisconsin. For several years, Lewis helped apply stockmanship research conducted by the University of Minnesota while he was the manager of the Transition Management Facility for Emerald-Baldwin Dairies in western Wisconsin. Now, he is able to teach stockmanship principles to others and share the benefits it has for both dairy animals and workers.

“It doesn’t matter what language a human speaks; animals can learn to associate certain behaviors with vocal commands, but it is our physical actions that are most important when influencing cow behavioral responses,” says Höglund.

Specific applications

Conditioning cattle to the herd, reducing escape behaviors, and ensuring the well-being of cattle should be an overarching goal of all dairy stock handling.

“When cattle encounter stressors, their heart rate can rise, respiration rate often increases, and normal biological functions can be altered,” explains Höglund. “It can take 20 to 30 minutes, or longer, for an animal to return to natural homeostasis, or normal physical patterns, after even a brief moment of excitement. One goal should be to reduce occurrences of escape behavior from occurring at all. In simpler terms, avoid startling cattle.”

Cows also share “biological signals” through the release of pheromones that they emit. “Also known as ectohormones,” Höglund explains, “pheromones allow animals to ‘chemically’ communicate with one another.” For example, Lewis says the first heifer to urinate in a newly commingled pen will set the tone for the rest of the pen. “She can spread chemical messages to her pen mates via the pheromones she releases.”

Pheromones can remain even when the animals are gone. That’s why cattle may become jumpy when unloading into an unfamiliar setting. “They step off the trailer, pick up the pheromone messages, and display their fear,” says Lewis.

Stockmanship proponents suggest that dairy cattle of all ages can benefit from the practice, starting with young calves. Particularly for calves raised in individual hutches, their socialization with humans is important, and should continue throughout their adolescence.

Good stockmanship can ease the transition of springing heifers into the milking string.

While there is little research yet proving that stockmanship can make a difference in dairy herd performance, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. When Lewis took the time to introduce newly arrived transition animals to their surroundings, their dry-matter intake was maintained or increased at a stage when it typically drops off. “I firmly believe that keeping those animals eating consistently made the transition smoother for them and helped them avoid a variety of metabolic problems,” he says.

A case for training

Lewis says some simple stockmanship practices work almost instantaneously, which makes real believers out of the human trainees.

For example, “I recently was on a dairy and the young man letting cows into the parlor was standing in exactly the wrong spot. By simply repositioning himself, cow entry and flow changed almost immediately,” he says. “I could see the light bulb go off for that person, which is really gratifying.”

Höglund and Lewis suggest that every dairy can benefit from first-hand stockmanship training, and every person who works with animals should be encouraged to participate.

It’s money well spent.

“Most dairy owners would not think of allowing an employee to jump on a $250,000 piece of equipment and start running it with no training,” Lewis says. “Yet we often turn them loose with groups of cows that have equal or higher value, with no idea how they function. Workers need to be taught how cattle ‘operate,’ too.”

 The basics of stockmanship

Stockmanship experts Don Höglund and Jim Lewis share the following insights:

1 Field of vision. Because their eyes are located somewhat toward the sides of their heads, cows have excellent peripheral vision and can see 340 degrees. However, because of the boney-mass surrounding the eyes, approaching cattle directly from behind, in their blind spot, can be startling to the animal and dangerous to the handler. If possible, always let the animal see you. This means we are most effective as handlers if we direct cattle movement from the sides of the animal rather driving them from directing in back of them.

2 Flight zone. Cattle are herd animals and are classified as a prey species. They have natural defenses against predators, such as escape or flight behaviors. The flight or escape zone is generally referred to as the area around them that, when invaded by the unwelcome, will cause them to move away. As cattle interact more with their handlers and regular surroundings, the flight zone can become smaller and they can be approached more readily.

3 Stimulus area. This is the buffer area outside the flight zone in which controlled stimulus, when applied efficiently, will cause the cow to move as intended by the handler. “Stimulus” here refers to human presence and action only, not prods, whips or any other physical tools. It is also more successful when only one person applies stimulus at a time.

4 Depth perception. Cows have limited close-up depth perception, making stepping over a curb, onto a shadow, or walking off the edge of a bedded pack potentially new to them. If those conditions are present in their environment, they will need to be handled repeatedly in order for them to learn not to over-react.

5 Hearing. Cattle have a broader hearing range than humans in frequency of kilohertz and will respond to quieter noises and higher pitches that humans cannot hear. Reducing or eliminating loud noises, including shouting, whistling and clanging gates, will help reduce stress and adrenaline production.

6 Stage of life. Regular, calm interaction with humans should begin with newborn calves. Young animals of all species (including humans) have “brain plasticity,” which means they have a tremendous ability to absorb and retain knowledge when they are very young. The transition period between hutches and group housing is a critical time to practice stockmanship to help them interact more calmly with humans, find out where their feed and water are, and become acclimated to having pen mates. Calving time is another period that requires careful stockmanship, because maternal instincts can cause cows to become more aggressive and more easily startled. As a stockman, always leave yourself an escape route when handling close-up animals.

7 Flow of movement. Once a cow is moving in the intended direction, it is ideal to keep her moving and not interrupt that positive flow. Facility design plays an important role here. Placing cows in holding areas before they enter the parlor is not ideal, and crowd gates and “cow pushers” can cause severe stress. An example of constant, positive flow is the rotary parlor, which promotes positive flow and provides a very calming, regular routine to the cow.

8 Return instinct. Cows tend to return to the place from which they came. That’s likely why pasture-based cattle will walk along the same “cow paths” every day. Oval or circular routes between the parlor and housing areas — with access to feed and water along those routes — will help cows be milked, eat, drink, then lie down and rest in a routine, low-stress fashion.

For more information: Three Dairy Care 365TM Training Series modules have been developed by the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine in conjunction with Merck Animal Health. To request a copy of the “Introduction to Dairy Stockmanship” and “Moving Cows to the Milking Parlor” training modules, contact your Merck Animal Health representative, e-mail or contact the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine at 1-800-380-8636 or