This is how to Know the best behaviour of a cow

Raymond Sirma, manager at Makongi Farm, Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

Dear Daktari, I am Jackson Musyoka from Machakos. After retiring from my military service, I have embarked on serious dairy farming. I spend the whole day with my cows, enjoying their graceful grazing, mooing, and ruminating. My question is: can you please elaborate on cow behavior so that I can get more from my interactions?

Thanks so much, Jackson. I can tell you that your love for your cows will earn you more years under the sun. You are not alone in this; we have received good feedback from other retirees who have turned to dairy farming, and it is keeping them active and happy. To truly know your cows, you must understand their normal behaviours. This knowledge helps you to timely detect deviations due to sickness, injury, or distress. Understanding cattle behaviour also helps ensure good handling, reducing human-induced stressors. A cow’s behaviour includes individual actions, herd interactions, and routines established over time. Some activities to observe include grazing, vocalisation, mothering, and hierarchical observances.


Eating in cows is referred to as grazing. This activity takes the greatest percentage of a cow’s day and can last up to nine hours, depending on the type of feed. Early morning and late afternoon are the preferred periods for ingestion of feed. Cows use their long tongues, aided by an anatomical dental gap, to grab mouthfuls of feed, mix it with saliva, and swallow it whole.

Several factors influence the grazing behavior of cattle. The selection of what to eat is instinctivev - animals will innately know and avoid poisonous plants. This behaviour can also be learned, as seen when cattle are introduced to new types of feed and taught by the farmer to eat. Availability of water also affects the amount of feed consumed. You may notice that cows in a field will avoid grass around their fecal waste to minimize ingestion of worms.

Chewing the Cud

Considering the high nutrient needs of cattle, nature designed a digestive system that ensures they get maximum quantities of feed daily. If cattle and other ruminants chewed food as we do until it could be swallowed, they wouldn't get enough to eat before nightfall. Rumination, or chewing the cud, solves this problem. While rumination may happen during the day when cows are at rest, most of it occurs at night and can take up to eight hours a day. If a cow is fed highly fibrous feed, rumination time can increase. Factors affecting rumination time also include the cow’s health condition and species.


Two main activities in a cow’s day are resting and grazing. A cow can spend up to 12 hours, and calves up to 18 hours, resting each day. The preferred position is resting on the sternum with the head raised, allowing for quick and easy standing. At rest, cows will engage in social grooming through social licking, which is especially common between mothers and their calves to strengthen the bond.


Cattle use over ten distinct vocalisations to communicate. They register displeasure, show appreciation, call their calves, attract a male, express pain, or establish dominance through sounds like mooing, bellowing, and grunting. Understanding these behaviors will enhance your interactions with your cows and contribute to a more productive and harmonious dairy farming experience.

[Dr Othieno is a veterinary surgeon and currently the head of communications at FAO-Kenya. The views expressed here are his own]

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