Cattle are complex, sentient creatures who have evolved over thousands of years in harmony with their natural environment and have developed intricate social structures and interactions. The natural life of cattle, described below, is very different to the lives they have on dairy farms.
Cattle are members of the Bovidae family, which also includes antelope, goats, sheep, bison and buffalo. Modern domestic cattle (Bos taurus) descended from the much larger auroch (Bos taurus primigenius) which once ranged throughout Britain, Africa, the Middle East, India and central Asia. Domestication of the auroch began in Mesopotamia around 6500 BC where they were used for meat, milk, hides and labour. Selective breeding over the millennia caused dramatic physical changes to domestic cattle, to the extent that they are now considered a separate species. Wild aurochs became extinct in Britain in the Bronze Age, with the last members of their species killed by hunters in Poland in 1627.
Populations of semi-wild cattle still survive in several countries, including the white cattle which have roamed free in Chillingham Park in Northumberland for at least the past 700 years. Studies of this herd, and other semi-wild herds, have provided much insight on natural cattle behaviour.
Semi-wild cattle form small groups, averaging 15-20 animals, with a strict social hierarchy – the highest ranking individuals having priority to food, shelter and water, with offspring inheriting their mother’s status. The social structure within herds is based on matriarchy families, with mother cows and their daughters remaining grooming and grazing partners for their whole lives. These mother and daughter units are connected by lifelong friendships to other, unrelated cows to form a herd. Once the social structure is established in a herd it remains stable for many years and any disruption to the group, such as a new member or division of the herd, is very stressful. According to Rosamund Young, an expert on cattle behaviour, it is extremely common for calves to establish lifelong friendships when only a few days old. These social bonds are constantly reinforced through mutual grooming.
The birth of a calf is a very private moment for a cow and she will usually take herself off from the rest of the herd to give birth, leaving her calf hidden away in long grass for the first week or so. The week-old calf is then brought to the herd for an introduction ceremony. The ‘king’ bull comes out to meet them and escorts them into the herd. The other cows then inspect and sniff the calf, as if to decide whether he or she should be admitted to the herd. Once this is 'agreed', the cows pay no further attention to the new calf who remains with the herd.
Cows are very protective of their young and will attack, and even kill, anything they see as a threat. Female calves will naturally suckle until they are around nine months old and stay with their mothers for the rest of their lives. Males are weaned at around 12 months old and would then leave the herd and join a bachelor herd. Both males and females can easily live to be 20 years old.
Eating Behaviour & Nutrition
Cows are ruminants who digest their food in two steps, first by eating the raw material and then regurgitating a semi-digested form known as cud which they chew again. Their stomach is divided into four chambers with each carrying out different functions. In the first chamber, called the rumen, the food is mixed with fluid to form the cud. The regurgitated cud, after having been slowly chewed, is swallowed again, and passes through the rumen into the other stomach chambers for further digestion.
Cattle have a wide field of vision but are poor judges of detail and distance. Contrary to popular belief, cattle can also see colour although they have a deficiency towards the red end of the spectrum. Due to their poor depth perception, they are often reluctant to enter dark or shadowy areas and frequently over-react to quite small things in their path, such as changes in floor surface or shadows.
Cattle have excellent hearing and hear sounds at similar and higher frequencies to humans; they dislike loud, sudden noises. They also have a very effective sense of smell which they use to explore new objects or environments.
Read more in our report The Dark Side of Dairy.
Or watch our short video The Dark Side of Dairy.
And for more on cow behaviour see our feature article How Now Clever Cow...