Cattle behaviour basics

Understanding cattle behaviour helps reduce the risk of cattle related injuries.


Why understanding cattle behaviour is important

Having a good understanding of cattle behaviour is key to staying safe on a cattle farm. Understanding of cattle behaviour has greatly increased and continues to improve. We now have more insights into how cattle perceive the world and how this impacts their behaviour. We can use this information to help keep cattle calm, and to design more efficient facilities. This makes cattle handling easier and safer. A cattle yard that keeps people and cattle separate will always be the safest option.

There are many excellent resources available that explain cattle behaviour and how understanding cattle behaviour helps keep everyone on the farm safe.


  • Cattle have panoramic vision. This wide field of vision means:
    • It takes time for them to process what they see.
    • They can be distracted by movement off to the side. This may cause them to resist being moved, or react with fear.
  • They have blind spots in front of their nose and directly behind them. This limits their ability to see things on the ground.
  • Their vision has low clarity, focus and contrast. For example, they have difficulty telling the difference between a shadow on the ground and a hole in the ground, which can cause them to baulk.


  • Cattle have acute and very sensitive hearing. This means:
    • Sudden loud noises, particularly high pitched noises such as a whistle, can make cattle nervous and fearful.
    • Yelling and making loud noises do not assist with cattle handling, it will just make cattle fearful.
  • Speaking to cattle with a low, calm voice will get their attention and let them know where you are.
  • If a cow's ears are pointing at you, you know you have their attention.

Smell and Taste

  • Cows have an acute sense of smell and taste.
  • A stressed or fearful cow can release pheromones, a scent which other cattle can smell. The scent puts other cattle on alert, making them fearful and more difficult to manage.

Signs of stressed or fearful cattle

Listed from: (1) Least stressed to (5) Most stressed.

How to stay safe around stressed cattle

  • Give the cattle time to settle. If they have just been moved into a yard or unloaded from a truck they may need 30 minutes or more to settle.
  • Don't leave individual cattle in a yard by themselves, as they don’t like to be isolated from the herd.
  • Avoid working alone with cattle.
  • Once you can see that the cattle have settled, approach them quietly and calmly. Make sure they are aware of your presence so they don’t get spooked.
  • Stay aware of what is going on around you. Make sure you know where your escape routes are.

Cattle behaviour and safe cattle handling

Understanding cattle behaviour can help you handle cattle safely and efficiently.

Use the point of balance and flight zone

The illustration shows an overhead view of an animal in the middle of a circular 'flight zone' noting the blind spot and optimal handler positions when moving cattle.

The flight zone boundary and the point of balance are crucial to low stress stock handling. All handlers need to understand cattle behaviour, particularly the flight zone of cattle, both in theory and practice before working independently with cattle.

Position and movement are key. A cattle handler working the flight zone appropriately can turn cattle exactly when needed, but someone positioned wrongly can cause havoc.

There are many resources available online explaining point of balance and flight zone.

Avoid overcrowding to keep cattle calm

Yards should not be overcrowded, particularly for forcing yards as this will create insufficient room for cattle movement. Your yard setup will determine how full your yards should be, this could be anywhere between 30% and 75% full.

Cattle will only pack into a corner and not see the race entrance, and you will not be able to adequately work their flight zone. Cattle need to see an avenue of escape, as they tend to stop and turn if they approach a dead-end.

Cattle do not like to be by themselves, so you should avoid having cattle in yards that are isolated from other cattle.

Yard acclimatisation

Most cattle farmers have an established working procedure when working cattle in yards. The cattle soon learn this method which has to be considered when carrying out procedures such as drafting.

If cattle have learnt a system and this system is then changed, handling them will be harder. For example, entering the yard from a different direction, using gates in a different way or moving from low stress to more highly pressured cattle handling techniques.

Effective use of livestock goads for safe cattle handling

Livestock goads, such as drafting canes, paddles and sticks allow you to control cattle from a safer distance. They effectively increase the length of the cattle handler's arm.

Knowing how to effectively use a goad helps make cattle handling safer and easier:

  • Holding a cane in front of a cow, steer or bull’s head will cause it to either stop or turn.
  • Hitting cattle is unnecessary and ineffective in moving them in the right direction.
  • Poking cattle that are already moving in the right direction is also unnecessary and dangerous as it can cause cattle to kick, putting the cattle handler in danger.
  • Electric prodders should be used minimally, if at all. A prodder should not be used on an animal which has nowhere to go or is already moving in the right direction, such as animals at the back of the mob.

Talk to the people who handle cattle

People who handle cattle at many different locations such as pregnancy testers, vets, livestock agents and livestock transporters are a great resource. Having safety conversations with these people can help you identify hazards and solutions.

If you are an employer, you also have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) to consult with your employees and contractors about health and safety. You can do this by making safety conversations a normal part of how you work.

Your responsibilities under the law

As a farmer you may be self-employed, employ people, or manage and control a farm. Regardless, you have duties under the OHS Act which can include ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable:

  • you provide a farm that is a safe working environment without risks to the health of your employees and contractors
  • your farm activities don't expose persons other than employees, for example family, or visitors, to health and safety risks
  • that people, including people making deliveries on the farm, can enter and leave the farm safely, and without risk to their health
  • you consult with your employees and contractors about health and safety on your farm

More Information and advice

There are many excellent resources available that explain cattle behaviour and how understanding cattle behaviour helps keep everyone on the farm safe.