What Are Boss Cows? And Can Cattle Feel Comfy?

Keeping your cow comfy is key to maintaining her health and well-being, as well as maximizing her milk production.

by Anna O'Brien
PHOTO: Vinai Suwanidcharoen/Shutterstock

Most hobby farmers can agree that their animals, no matter what species, have their own unique personalities and quirks. This, even if many of our farm animals are known for their herd mentality.

But can cows make friends? Or, more malevolently, hold grudges? Can a cow really be comfy?

As it turns out, the answer to these questions is yes.

Over the past few decades, research into the behavior of cattle, especially dairy cattle, has shown bovines have a surprisingly complex social life. This social structure, or lack thereof, then has direct impact on physiologic responses to their environment.

Read more: Do cows catch colds? Respitory issues matter when it comes to keeping cattle.

Queens of the Corral

Most of this research originates from the basic question many dairy farmers have: Are there things I can do on the farm to increase milk production? It has been demonstrated repeatedly that if cows are stressed, their milk production is negatively effected.

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So can social change stress cows? Studies say yes.

Once in a herd, cows develop a social hierarchy. There are even what are called “boss cows” at the apex of this social ladder. These are the cows that push their way through to the feed bunk no matter who is in their way.

No one is getting seconds until these queens of the corral have had their fill.

As you might imagine, it takes time for the intricacies of the social ladder to be worked out within a herd. If cows are frequently moved from one barn, pasture or farm to another, this social stress can start to affect their well-being.

Re-establishing who’s who in a crowd can lead to the release of cortisol and other stress hormones. These appear to have detrimental effects on milk production.

Cow Comfort

If cows are allowed to choose where they rest in a free-stall barn, they will choose to rest near acquaintances, not strangers. (A free-stall barn is a common type of dairy barn that has many open stalls without doors. The cows themselves choose where to rest)

Boss cows will often rest near other boss cows. Mid-level and bottom-level animals more commonly associate with others of their “class.”

Types of bedding and stall structure can also heavily influence “cow comfort.”

As a prey species, cows are particular about where they lay down. And they do lie down quite a bit. This rest period is actually a vital part of a cow’s day.

This is when she regurgitates and chews her cud, an important part of her digestive process. Additionally, cows that are able to frequently lie down have fewer lameness issues.

The dimensions of a stall, type of bedding used, flooring material and drainage, as well as any slants in the foundation, all impact whether a cow feels comfortable enough to lay down in the barn. The more comfortable a cow is, the healthier she is. And therefore the higher her milk production.

One study identified three different social structures within a dairy herd: a milking order, a leadership-followership pattern and a dominance hierarchy. This suggests that the social dynamic isn’t just a social ladder, but rather a more complicated web.

Social dynamics affect:

  • the order cows enter the milking parlor twice a day
  • who follows whom in the field and around the barn
  • who gets pushed out of the way when push comes to shove

Read more: Want cows but strapped for space? These 5 miniature cattle breeds are great for small farms.

Milk Matters

Studies have also shown that social dominance does not appear to influence milk production.

A boss cow is just as likely to produce the same amount of milk as a lower-ranked cow in the herd. Instead, milk production is influenced much more by genetics (milk production of the parents, grandparents, etc. and breed), health, type of diet and overall farm management.

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