Do Your Cows Know How You Feel About Them?

Ginger D Fenton, PHD

Handling, transportation, environment, feed, interactions with other animals, and interactions with humans can stress cattle. Do our attitudes influence factors that can affect profitability?

The saying goes “attitude is everything,” but is it? Researchers have been and are likely to continue exploring this notion in relation to production, reproduction, safety, and other aspects of operating dairy farms. Many stimuli including handling, transportation, their environment, feed, interactions with other animals, and interactions with humans can stress cattle. Do our attitudes influence factors that can affect profitability on dairy farms?


The interactions between humans and animals, along with attitudes of the animal handlers, were examined during a study of 30 organic dairies in Germany and Denmark (Ivemeyer et al., 2018). Data collected included observations of the milkers’ behavior toward the cows, survey responses on attitudes of the farmers, and udder health according to 3 indicators (percent of mastitis quarters, somatic cell score, and cure rate). More favorable udder health ratings were recorded when the respondents’ attitudes favored patience when moving cattle, pleasant behavior toward cows, a greater number of positive interactions with cows, and when the routines of the milkers were unchanged. Another European study assessed the interactions between humans and cattle by gauging whether certain factors influenced whether cattle avoided being touched by humans while at the feeding rack (des Roches et al., 2016). The study authors concluded that characteristics of the farm such as bedding, herd size, or milking system did not influence the cattle to avoid being touched; however, an avoidance association was observed when the farmers possessed a negative behavioral attitude toward the cows, which included behaviors such as naming cows, issuing a warning to them prior to milking, yelling, or reluctance to cull favorite cows. The average farm sizes in the studies previously mentioned were 85 cows and 54 cows, respectively.


A positive attitude and drive to seek assistance and information can be positively reflected by herd health measures including mastitis and decreased bulk tank somatic cell count (BTSCC). Researchers who conducted a survey of dairies in the southeastern U.S. concluded that producers reporting BTSCC levels at or below 300,000 who sought information and desired to lower their SCC were able to observe positive results and decrease the BTSCC (DeLong et al., 2017). Further, these researchers also noted an association between farmers’ attitudes toward their ability to manage mastitis related to milking practices and a lower BTSCC. An earlier study of factors influencing mastitis management across several states highlighted the role that attitudes can have, as the survey respondents reported higher BTSCC when the lack of adherence to milking protocols and cases of mastitis were perceived as issues on farms (Schewe et al., 2015).

The findings from a recent study of 265 male and female Finnish dairy farmers indicated that their well-being was tied to several factors including working with healthy farm animals along with family interaction, a workload that is within reason, and the sustainability of the farm economy (Kallioniemi et al., 2018). These results reflect that maintaining herd health aids in the positive well-being of the farmers that were surveyed.

These studies would indicate that a component of a farm management strategy is the right attitude. While the recent online trend of cow cuddling may be a bit extreme, it might be worthwhile to take a few minutes to check negative feelings at the barn door. Focusing our efforts on things that we can control and anticipating positive results may provide a boost in productivity and make for a better work environment.


DeLong, K. L., D. M. Lambert, S. Schexnayder, P. Krawczel, M. Fly, L. Garkovich, and S. Oliver. 2017. Farm business and operator variables associated with bulk tank somatic cell count from dairy herds in the southeastern United States. J. Dairy Sci. 100:9298-9310.

Des Roches, A. B., I. Veissier, X. Boivin, E. Gilot-Fromont, and L. Mounier. 2016. A prospective exploration of farm, farmer, and animal characteristics in human-animal relationships: An epidemiological survey. J. Dairy Sci. 99:5573-5585.

Ivemeyer, S., C. Simantke, A. Ebinghaus, P. H. Poulsen, J. T. Sorensen, T. Rousing, and R. Palme. 2018. Herd-level associations between human-animal relationship, management, fecal cortisol metabolites, and udder health of organic dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci. 101:7361-7374.

Kallioniemi, M. J., J. Kaseva, C. Lunner Kolstrup, A. Simola, and H. Kymäläinen. 2018. Job resources and work engagement among Finnish dairy farmers. J. Agromed. 23:249-262.

Schewe, R. L., J. Kayitsinga, G. A. Contreras, C. Odom, W. A. Coats, P. Durst, E. P. Hovingh, R. O. Martinez, R. Mobley, S. Moore, and R. J. Erskine. 2015. Herd management and social variables associated with bulk tank somatic cell count in dairy herds in the eastern United States. J. Dairy Sci. 98:7650-7665.