Whenever I get a group of school children together to talk about dairy or beef cattle, I ask them a question to drive home a point. “What does every cow in the world have in common?” Dairy or beef cows… makes no difference… every cow in the world is a mom. They have to have a baby before they begin their life as a cow, whether they are making milk to feed only their baby (or babies) or feeding the world with milk, cheese, butter and ice cream.

What this really means for us as producers is that we need to be mindful of how we handle our dairy and beef brood cows. After all, the wisdom that “if Momma isn’t happy, nobody’s happy” holds true for cows as well.

Cows, like our human moms, work very hard to provide for us, and it literally pays for us to be watchful for any way that we can lower the stress that can rob our cows of productivity. Like any mammal, when a cow is stressed too much, her adrenal glands, located near her kidneys, jump into action and release adrenaline. Adrenaline feeds the fight-or-flight instincts of its target, closing down any unnecessary functions until the stressful event is over.

One of the first things to go for a cow under stress is milk flow. In order to secrete milk, a cow must relax and allow oxytocin, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain, to initiate smooth muscle contractions. Milk that is held in the udder is released to flow down the mammary gland to the teat cistern for the calf to nurse or the milking machine to remove. If a cow is stressed, she will express much less milk or none at all.

This is why it is absolutely accurate when we say that cows “give” milk. You cannot rob them of it, and you certainly cannot force it out of them. Either they are agreeable to give us milk or they are not. If we cause an adrenaline release because we frighten or hurt a cow, that response will last as long as 36 hours.

And it isn’t only milk flow that is adversely affected. Cows that are stressed can suffer a suppression of the immune system, making the cattle more susceptible to disease, reduced reproduction and reduced weight gains. Many of these stressed cattle can have an inflammatory reaction and have digestive upsets, resulting in reduced consumption and fluctuating pH levels in the rumen and intestinal tract that can cause diarrhea.

One way to reduce stress and lower adrenaline releases is to practice gentle-cattle handling techniques. Cattle that are crowded, separated from herdmates, or exposed to facilities that can injury or cause pain will be under stress. Interestingly, when handling cattle, the first place you can make a difference is to be quiet. Yelling at cattle causes a greater adrenaline release than striking them. In fact, the release of adrenaline from using loud voices and loud noises when handling cattle is surpassed only by using an electric prod or hot shot.

As producers, we need to observe the cattle and be patient. Look around the corrals for corners where cattle can be injured or for protruding nails or bolts that can cause cuts or bruises. Walk your corrals from the back to the front and then from the front to the back, and try to place yourself as the cows and observe how they work though a corral system.

I look at corrals and see panels bent and broke or fences fixed with a panel, and I have to ask the question: Why is that bent or broken? Was it a cow that did it? Was it out of fear? As an example, vaccinations can hurt, causing a cow to thrash against its corral. Use sharp needles and change every five head. Stay calm and keep noise to a minimum, and the cattle will respond in a positive manner.

Remember, cattle stress is an enemy to your bottom line. Talk with your neighbors, veterinarians, consultants, nutritionists or extension professionals about reducing cattle stress. Sometimes an extra set of eyes can bring stressors to light, and it may be a simple fix to eliminate or reduce. The result will be a happier Mother’s Day for all of the moms on our farms.

Upcoming Events

May--Smyth Washington Cattleman’s Meeting, date to be announced later.

May 15--VESA Meeting, Petersburg.

May 15-17--Tennessee State Ag Agent Meeting, Knoxville.

May 20--Marion Tree Commission Arbor Day Celebration, Marion Elementary School.

May 27--VFW Memorial Day Parade and Celebration, Marion.

May 30--Older American’s Day, Chilhowie Town Park.

June 17-21--Smyth County 4-H Camp.

June 21--Deadline to Consign Calves to July 17 VQA Sale.

June 24-27--Kentucky State Ag Agents Meeting, Owensboro.

July 17--VQA Sale, 7 p.m., Tri State Livestock Market.

July 19--Deadline to Consign Calves to August VQA Sale.

July 22--VQA Steer Take Up.

July 22--Wool Pool Take Up Day, Wytheville, 2-4 p.m.

July 24--VQA Heifer Take Up.

July 29-30--Rich Valley Fair Livestock Shows.

July 30--Wool Pool Take Up, Russell County, 10- 11:30 a.m.

July 31--Wool Pool Take Up, Tazewell, 8-10 a.m.

Aug 21--VQA Sale.

Aug 22--Forage Field Day at Glade Research Farm.


Start your day with top headlines from our News, Sports, and Opinion pages.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Dr. Andy Overbay is Smyth County’s agriculture and natural resources extension agent.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.