Dairy cows

Dairy cows can experience a range of welfare problems. We're working in a variety of different ways to improve their welfare both on farm, and during transport and slaughter.

Cattle natural history and behaviour

Understanding the history and natural behaviour of cattle can help explain the needs of today's dairy cows.

There are around 800 recognised breeds of domestic cattle. All of these descend from a now extinct species called the auroch. The domestication of cattle is thought to have begun roughly 10,000 years ago.

Cattle are very social animals that live in groups, also known as herds. In groups of cows, social hierarchies play an important role with some individuals being more dominant than others. Cows also have preferred social partners within their groups who they keep close to and are more likely to groom.

As grazing animals, cattle will feed on grasses and other plants that grow close to the ground. They will tend to spend around a third to a half of their day grazing when kept at pasture, with peaks of grazing activity occurring at dawn and dusk.

The vegetation that cattle eat can be difficult to digest. Because of this, they and other 'ruminant' species have evolved a specialised digestive system ¿ which famously contains four chambers ¿ to aid the digestive process.

Ruminant species also 'ruminate', which means they regurgitate, re-chew and then re-swallow partially digested food to further aid digestion.

Cattle also tend to spend a large proportion of their day lying down. This is an important activity for cows as it's when they engage in most of their rumination behaviour, and when they rest and sleep.

Further information

As well as the information on these pages, we've also produced The welfare of dairy cows information sheet - February 2017 (PDF 654KB), our position statement on Individual hutches for calves (PDF 305KB), and our position statement on Grazing dairy cows (PDF 211KB).

Found out more about how dairy cows are farmed.

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