Stress is bad for us - we know that. And it also has a negative impact on cow health, fertility and productivity. We spoke to a leading cattle vet to find out how to minimise stress for both producers and cattle. Keep calm - and put the kettle on
TEXT RACHAEL PORTER
Something as simple as a cup of tea can be the key to reducing both cow and staff stress on many UK units. So says Dairy Veterinary Consultancy’s vet Owen Atkinson, who is also a registered CowSignals trainer and has a particular interest in understanding and optimising cow behaviour.
Excess stress is the root cause of many human health issues and the same can be said for cattle. High levels of adrenalin and cortisol – the chemicals produced in both acute and chronic stress situations – are not good for cows, calves or dairy staff. Not only can they suppress immune function, increasing susceptibility to disease, but they can also lead to poor herd reproductive performance and lower productivity.
“To understand how to reduce and combat stress, it’s important to understand the biology or physiology of what happens to the cow, and humans, when stress occurs,” says Mr Atkinson.
“Acute stress, perhaps caused by shouting or sudden movements, triggers the release of the ‘fight or flight’ hormone adrenalin. This is an acute state of stress where the body typically processes adrenalin within 30 minutes, which is why people often calm down with a cup of tea after a nasty shock.
“If the stress or ‘threat’ continues, this long-term or chronic situation results in raised cortisol levels. This causes raised blood pressure in people, and in cows it results in a higher metabolic rate.”
He explains that this creates a state of oxidative stress, an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. “Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules with an uneven number of electrons. This uneven number allows free radicals to react easily with other molecules, and they float around the body and cause cellular damage. This impacts the immune system and can also cause tissue damage.”
A higher metabolic rate in cattle will increase their susceptibility to disease and lower fertility and productivity. “This could be mastitis or any other production disease. And they will also be more vulnerable to other viral and bacterial infections. Reducing stress and keeping it to a minimum will have knock-on health, welfare, fertility and milk production benefits,” says Mr Atkinson.
So what should producers do to reduce stress in cows and prevent adrenalin release and cortisol production so the animals’ metabolic rate is optimised?
“Cows don’t like high-pitched noises, so don’t whistle at them to move them around. And they don’t like dogs either, so don’t let any farm dogs yap and nip around their feet.
“Slippery floors also stress cows out. Research into different walking surfaces found that slippery surfaces not only had the potential to reduce fertility, possibly because cows were less able to express oestrus behaviour, but that it also increased stress and metabolic rates.” Mr Atkinson says that congestion can also create stress, particularly if cows are unable to get away from more dominant cattle in the herd. “Passageways with dead ends and excessive housed stocking rates can result in stress. All herds have a hierarchy, and subordinate cows must feel they can ‘escape’ or avoid more dominant cattle. Give them space.”
An often-overlooked stressor is isolation. “This is a cause of stress in many cows,” says Mr Atkinson. “Cows are herd animals and prefer company. Being alone creates anxiety. But sick cows are often isolated. And young calves are also often penned as singles.
“It’s well worth adapting management to ensure that calves are reared in pairs or groups, where possible. This can help to reduce stress and improve calf health.” Cattle do feel anxiety, as well as six other emotional states experienced by all mammals. Cows’ emotions, which stem from the mammalian midbrain, include: anger; fear; and anxiety, which can be compared to the grief and loss experienced by humans, and is often felt by cattle when they’re isolated. Positive emotions experienced include: maternal and caring, particularly after calving; joy, expressed as ‘play’ such as when calves gallop around a freshly bedded pen, or when cows are turned out for the first time in spring or have access to a rotating brush. Cattle also feel lust and curiosity, which is why they’re inquisitive and ‘investigate’ any new and different things they’re presented with.
“All seven ‘emotions’ are essential to all mammals, including cattle,” says Mr Atkinson. “Producers should aim to minimise the negative and maximise and stimulate the positive emotions. It’s impossible for a cow or calf to be ‘anxious’ if they’re feeling ‘joy’. Environmental enrichment can help here, such as cow brushes and suspended balls, and deep bedding for calves to encourage play.”
Physical contact can help too. A study in chickens found that they were instantly calmed by being enveloped in the hands. “This releases opioids in the brain and works for all mammals, including people. Think of a cuddle. “So regular contact with cattle, starting when they’re young calves, can really help to keep those positive emotions topped up and reduce stress.”
Human contact: spending quiet time with cattle will help limit stress
Mr Atkinson says this is really important with dairy cattle as there are some instances of human contact that can be less positive for heifers and cows, such as bTB testing and pregnancy detection.
“Spend ‘calm and quiet’ time with your stock and practice positive reinforcement. And earn some credits, particularly when handling calves, to keep the relationship with your herd on a good footing to compensate for when necessary management procedures, such as hoof trimming, creates a degree of stress.”
Another key point to remember is that if a situation does get stressful – perhaps the herd becomes upset during bTB testing – take a break. “It gives you time to calm down and also allows the herd to settle before things escalate further. It prevents stress from spiralling – for staff and cattle. Go and get a cup of tea. Your cows will appreciate it as much as you do.”
Tips for reducing stress – in cattle and people
● Avoid adrenalin. No sudden or loud noises, or waving arms around. Staff should be calm and quiet around the herd.
● Adrenalin can ‘spread’ in the herd – if one animal becomes distressed this can impact the rest of the herd. So pause, if bTB testing for example, and let the herd/adrenalin settle before continuing.
● Remember herd hierarchy and ensure subordinate cows can ‘avoid’ dominant cows – no dead ends or overcrowding. Ensure cows have choice – that they don’t feel trapped.
● Consistency and routine – cows are creatures of habit, so feed and milk, for example, at the same times each day.
● Avoid isolation where possible – remember that cows are herd animals and feel stress if separated from herd mates.