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The natural life of cows

cows natural life

Cows are intelligent and social animals, who in natural surroundings form well-defined hierarchy based social groups of 100's of other animals. Maternal bonds are very strong in cows, and calves will not leave their mothers for the first 4-6 months of their life.

These gentle giants are intelligent, highly social animals with strong maternal bonds. In natural surroundings cows form complex social structures with well-defined hierarchies in groups as large as a hundred cattle, with every cow knowing their own and every other cows place in the hierarchy.

Cows are intelligent, they understand cause-and-effect relationships and like humans get excited when they have solved a problem. A baby calf will not leave his mother’s side for the first four to six months of its life. Naturally, cows live to an average age of 20 years, with some cows living as long as 25 years old.

Intelligent animals

Research has shown that cows clearly understand cause-and-effect relationships — a sure sign of advanced cognitive abilities. For example, cows can learn how to push a lever to operate a drinking fountain when they're thirsty or to press a button with their heads to release grain when they're hungry. Researchers have found that not only can cows figure out problems, but they also like humans enjoy the intellectual challenge and get excited when they find a solution.

Complex social structures

Cows & buffaloes are social animals. Similar to chicken, cows form in groups of upto 100 and create clearly defined complex social structures. A cow is able to individually recognise more than 100 members of the herd, and their respective positions in the hierarchy. Cows higher in the hierarchy get preference in food and resting areas. 

Researchers have discovered that traits such as intelligence, confidence, and experience help to determine who moves up the social hierarchy of a cattle group. When a new cow joins a herd, the dominant ones test the cow to establish its place in the hierarchy.

Strong maternal bonds

Until the age of 4-6 months, a new born calf will spend most of its time near his mother. During this period the mother cow, consistently licks, nurses and feeds her child. The mother cows also guards her calves fiercely and will be aggressive against anyone she perceives as a threat while her calf is still young. It’s only after 4-6 months, that a calf starts to form what are still unstable social groups with other baby calves. Social status increases with age, and social relationships are not stable until a calf is one year old.


Happy vs unhappy cows

Healthy cattle will appear alert, stretch on rising and be vocal – they often vocalise in response to pain or stress (Grandin 2001). Unwell cattle often show little interest in their environment, have dull eyes, sluggish movement, poor grooming and poor appetite (NSW Feedlot manual, 1997). Other indicators of sickness include over-stretching of the neck, hunching the back, kicking the belly area (indicating abdominal pain), grinding teeth, star-gazing, etc. (Moran, 1993).

Cattle tails are similar to dogs. If the tail is hanging straight down, the animal is relaxed. If the tail is tucked between the legs, the animal may be cold, sick, or frightened.  If the tail is away from the body, the animal may be mating or may feel threatened. If the tail is held out in a straight line, the animal is in a playful mood.