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Your cows are talking: Are you listening?

Kelton Spain for Progressive Cattleman Published on 07 October 2016

The 1998 movie The Horse Whisperer starring Robert Redford hit the movie screens with a story of a man who “whispers” to horses. I have often thought of this movie and the perception that people can talk to animals.

Over the years, I have studied the methods of horse training that trainers Ray Hunt, Monte Roberts and John Lyons used to help teach people to train horses. Many of their training methods have developed from the ability to observe the horse, using their natural instincts for training purposes in a gentle manner.

Are you listening to and observing your cows in the same way? Your cows are “talking” all the time. If we listen, we can really understand how they feel at that moment and why. Consider the definition of listening, which is “understanding, receiving and interpreting behavioral processes, including verbal and nonverbal feedback.” Cows are effective at giving nonverbal feedback and, when highly stressed, will give verbal feedback.

The following are situations producers need to tune into when observing their cows’ feedback.


Cows usually will talk extensively about stresses in their lives. This stress may include pain, handling, moving and separation from their calves. Producers need to listen when a cow verbalizes or bawls, as she may be under extreme stress, and we should try and alleviate that stress as quickly as possible.

When cows become protective to the point of fighting, they are giving warnings that they are not responding well to how a handler is treating them or how their environment is making them feel. They feel confined and trapped, and their prey instinct will kick in. Every year, there are producers hurt or killed because they are not listening to the cow and not taking them seriously.

Take time to observe and determine why the cow is showing this outward sign of stress. Could it be a burred needle at vaccination? Could it be the dog biting? Could it be something they hit in the alleyway? Stop and observe, and try to understand why they are talking.


A leading veterinarian specializing in low-stress cattle handling made a valuable statement at a low-stress cattle handling seminar I attended that I will always remember. He said cattle are the greatest actors when it comes to health. He went on to explain as a prey animal, the old and sick are killed and eaten in nature. This reaction is in their DNA. An example may be a steer with foot rot. We observe them limping at a distance. When challenged to be moved or doctored, that animal can run for miles like it has nothing wrong. Listening to cows for health issues or sickness is something that takes time and dedication.

There are people who are good at listening, picking up early signs of sickness. Others will notice them when they are about dead. When we listen to cows as they talk about their health, we must be patient and observe them quietly and without stress and understand the early signs. The more we observe our cows, the more they will talk to us. On the Western range, where we see the cattle infrequently, they certainly don’t talk very loudly. We must listen carefully and observe intently.


Cows are truly creatures of habit and love the mundane. They like to eat the same time of day and have the same diet day after day. Research has demonstrated this behavior for years with optimum production and health. Disruption of this mundane life can cause issues with their digestive tract. We need to listen to the cows when they are talking to us about how they feel.

Good nutritionists will spend needed time in front of feedbunks in feedlots and dairies. They will observe what the cows are telling them. The cows may not like an ingredient in the ration and separate it out, and it is amazing how much they can separate. The nutritionist will walk behind the cows and read the manure. Manure tells a big story in the functioning of the rumen.

Acidosis or bloat can be seen pretty quickly when observing the cows. However, subacute acidosis or other rumen issues may not be so noticeable on the outside, but the cow manure tells the story. It is time to help her out and talk with her to figure out what is causing her angst. Cows may talk about their trace mineral status, pointing out deficiencies like poor reproduction or hair coat color or poor production. Copper deficiency, as an example, may cause a copper-colored hair coat to show on black cattle.

Cows also tell us about their nutrition through weight gain and weight loss. Both can be good or bad. Observe and listen to our cows! Excesses in either gain or loss can be detrimental to production.


There have been hundreds of research articles written about the effect of the environment on production for both dairy and beef cattle, including the effects of rain and snow, mud and drought, heat and cold. In a perfect world for beef cows, they are in temperatures of 40 to 68ºF, with lots of green grass and lots of clean fresh water and no predators. Cows will talk about their comfort. In my travels, I see lots of cattle on the range and in dairies, and I wonder at times, “Is anyone listening?”

I was traveling in Colorado a few weeks ago down a two-lane road and noticed a large pasture with a large amount of the cows standing two to three wide all the way down the fence line along the road. I had never observed this before. The pasture had plenty of feed, and they looked like they had been in the pasture for some time, but it was hot and they did not have access to shade. I turned around and stopped to see if I could understand what the cows were saying. There was heavy truck traffic, and when I got out, the trucks going by were creating a strong breeze that the cows were using to cool themselves along the fence. These cows were telling a story about their comfort.

I often observe cattle gathered around a water tank or water hole. I have to ask myself: Why are they standing there, not eating or sleeping? Is there not enough water? Is the boss cow keeping the others at bay? What are they telling us?

I have attended many sales training programs over the years in my career. Almost all sales training emphasizes the importance of listening by sales people. However, listening is a difficult concept for many people and certainly a learned skill. Just the same, listening to cattle is a learned skill. We must first ask why are they doing that action. Then, we must observe long enough to determine what the story is that they are telling.

Cows are talking to us every day. We must be willing to listen and take the time to observe. We need to learn to listen to help them become comfortable, healthy and producing at a profit.  end mark

PHOTO: Cows are “talking” all the time. If you listen, you can understand how they feel at that moment and why. Staff photo.

Kelton Spain is a national accounts manager for Vets Plus Inc. He holds a Bachelor of Science in animal science and a Master of Science in agricultural and extension education.