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    Conducting Cow Introductions At Your Animal Sanctuary

    A brown and white cow presses their head against a larger black and white cow.
    Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / The Ghosts In Our Machine / We Animals Media

    This Resource Is Meant to Be Read In Conjunction With Another Resource
    Before reading our cow-specific guidance, please read our detailed resource about preparing for resident introductions here. The following information is meant to supplement and build upon the important points covered within that resource.

    Cows are social animals who naturally live in herds. While established herds are often fairly harmonious (so long as they have ample space and don’t have to compete for resources), conflicts are not uncommon when cows first meet and work to determine where they fit in the social hierarchy. To help ensure things go as smoothly as possible, it’s important to carefully plan out cow resident introductions and make sure everyone involved knows how to conduct the introduction while staying safe. Below, we’ll highlight some important things to keep in mind.

    Planning For Cow Introductions

    When conducting resident introductions, planning and thoughtful consideration is key! In addition to the considerations outlined in Preparing For And Conducting Resident Introductions, there are a few additional things to keep in mind when planning for cow introductions.

    You Might Want To Let Calves Mature A Bit

    If you are considering introducing a calf to a herd of mature cows, it’s typically best to wait at least until the calf has matured enough to be weaned and is doing well on a forage-based diet. This can help ensure everyone continues to have their specific needs met regarding diet, warmth, etc. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and there may be times when you feel it is in a calf’s best interest to be introduced to a more mature cow before they have been weaned (for example, if there is a female who you think may “adopt” them or an older calf you think they’d get along with). However, housing individuals together who have significant differences in their dietary or housing needs will be more challenging, so be sure to consider how you will meet these needs. 

    It’s also important to remember that calves are more susceptible to Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis (MAP) infection (which causes Johne’s disease). In cows, studies suggest that resistance to MAP infection increases with age – calves under 6 months of age are considered most vulnerable, and most sources suggest preventing exposure to MAP until calves are at least 1 year old. Even if you do not currently care for Johne’s positive residents, it’s important to recognize that complications associated with testing make it difficult to know for certain that an individual is disease-free (particularly if they are not showing clinical signs of disease). If you haven’t already, we recommend talking to your veterinarian about the best way to protect vulnerable residents from potential MAP exposure.

    Calves are also more vulnerable to predation than mature cows. In some cases, allowing young calves to roam out in large spaces or to have outdoor access overnight may be too risky. Depending on your setup, you may be able to make modifications that allow you to introduce the calf while still keeping them safe, for example, keeping the herd on pastures that allow for more human supervision and/or closing the calf into a safe space overnight.

    Make Sure Breeding Is Not Possible

    A male cow (steer) can remain fertile for up to 6 weeks after being neutered. Do not conduct introductions until you are confident that breeding is not possible. If you’re not sure, check in with your veterinarian for guidance. Scheduling a new male resident’s neuter as soon after their intake as possible (following your veterinarian’s recommendations) can help avoid a long delay between discontinuing quarantine and being able to conduct introductions.

    Also keep in mind that a recently neutered male may continue to exhibit bull-like behaviors after being neutered, particularly if they were neutered later in life. Older bulls who were recently neutered may be more difficult to introduce to other males than someone who was neutered at a younger age. This doesn’t mean a male who is neutered later in life cannot be introduced to other males, but it may prove more difficult.

    Be Mindful Of The Weather And Environmental Conditions

    In Preparing For And Conducting Resident Introductions, we stress the importance of considering the weather when planning introductions, but it bears repeating here. Cows tend to be more sensitive to heat stress than some other species, so it’s best to avoid conducting introductions when the weather is hot (or humid). In some cases, you may be able to conduct cow introductions earlier in the day before temperatures heat up, but other times you may have to wait for a heat wave to subside before moving ahead with the introduction. 

    In addition to considering temperature and humidity, you also need to consider other environmental conditions. Given their larger size, slips and falls can result in catastrophic injury for cows. Cow residents should never have access to icy terrain, but during introductions, when members of the herd may be especially riled up, you really want to make sure the terrain they have access to provides good traction. In addition to ice, compacted snow and slick mud can also pose slipping hazards to cows.

    Make Sure They Have Lots Of Space

    It’s always important to ensure residents have ample space to spread out and stay away from each other when conducting introductions, but given their larger size and strength, this is imperative for cows. In many cases, it will be best to conduct cow introductions in a large outdoor space rather than a more confined space. Not only will they have less room to get away from each other in a smaller space (which may result in more altercations), but also, in a smaller space a tussle may result in someone being slammed into a fence or other barrier, increasing the risk of injury (and damage to infrastructure). 

    Think Hard About Human Safety

    In addition to thinking about how to mitigate the risk of injury to residents during an introduction, you must also think about how to keep humans safe (and we’ll talk about this more below). All resident introductions should be supervised, but be sure to think carefully about how to do this safely. For starters, we recommend only having experienced folks in with cow residents during resident introductions. Other folks who want to learn more about the process should observe from outside of the space the residents are in. We also recommend having multiple people involved so that folks can keep an eye on each other and be prepared to help if someone finds themselves in a dangerous situation or in need of assistance.

    While you want to think about the best space to conduct resident introductions in terms of resident safety, you should also think about how the space might affect human safety. Being in a confined space with large animals, such as cows, can put humans at risk of being injured, especially if they wind up squashed between two residents or between a resident and a wall, gate, fence, etc. This risk is greater during introductions, when residents may be more active as they check each other out and figure out where they stand in the social hierarchy. Anyone who supervises the introduction from within the space the residents are in should take care not to get between residents and should also avoid getting between a resident and a barrier. Make sure they have numerous exits available to them so they can escape quickly if needed. If this is not possible, they should observe from outside the space.

    While it’s certainly safer to be outside of the space the residents are in, it’s important to stay vigilant about safety. A scared or agitated cow may jump or run through a barrier, so folks need to pay attention and be prepared to move!

    Conducting Cow Introductions

    Once you’ve done all your prep work and are ready to conduct the introduction, you might want to start by housing the cows who are going to be introduced to each other in separate but adjacent spaces before fully integrating them (as described in Preparing For And Conducting Resident Introductions). This arrangement can give individuals time to get acquainted with one another, making the eventual physical introduction go more smoothly. So long as disease transmission is not a concern and your physical infrastructure can withstand it, giving residents the opportunity to sniff and possibly groom each other over or through a barrier can be a great way for residents to get to know each other! However, this arrangement may not work for everyone. If you find that a resident appears to be distressed being so close to other cows without being able to physically be with them, you’ll need to reassess. For some individuals, going straight into the herd (once they have completed quarantine and are healthy enough to do so), may be best. 

    Whether you opt to start residents off in separate but adjacent spaces or decide to move them right into the herd, once you are ready to allow the cows to be in a shared space with each other, it’s very important to closely monitor everyone’s reaction in case you need to intervene! There may be minor fighting at first, as everyone figures out their place in the social hierarchy, but as long as no one is getting injured or overdoing it, it’s generally best to let them sort things out for themselves. However, if things get out of hand, you’ll need to break up conflicts quickly (and carefully). Depending on the individuals involved, cow introductions may simply involve some sniffing and grooming, but it’s also not unusual for cows to scuffle by pressing their heads against each other and trying to push the other backward. You may also see some mounting behavior or even chasing. Keep an eye out for body language that might indicate an altercation is likely. These include the following:

    • Pawing at the ground and kicking dirt up on themselves
    • Rubbing their head on the ground
    • Arching their back and holding their head low (often while positioning the side of their body toward whomever the display is aimed at)

    While it’s not unusual for cows to push, chase, or mount each other during introductions, prolonged and/or excessive fighting, chasing, or mounting may require intervention. Similarly, if the individuals who are fighting are very different sizes, or if a much larger cow attempts to mount a smaller cow, you’ll need to intervene. Additionally, slamming other individuals in the side or rear can cause significant injury, as can the use of horns – if you see these behaviors, be sure to intervene.

    Mounting Behavior
    In some instances, cows will mount each other to establish their dominance, but other times it is purely hormonal. If you find that a female resident is being mounted excessively (whether she is a newly introduced resident or already part of the herd), she may be in estrus (“in heat”). Separating her for a day or two may be necessary to keep her safe. Over-mounting or being mounted by a much larger male can result in serious injury.

    Watch closely to make sure no one is causing injury and that no one is exhausting themselves or showing signs of overheating. If things escalate and you are worried a cow resident is going to be injured or overheat, you will need to intervene, but this must be done extremely carefully. It is not safe for a human to try to physically intervene during an altercation between mature cows (or even older calves). Instead, try to create a diversion to distract the individuals. This may be done by making loud noises or creating another type of diversion. When the altercation is disrupted, you can encourage residents to move away from one another. In some cases, you may need to separate individuals and try again later (or consider a different option entirely). 

    Always be very careful when working around cows who are agitated or excited. As explained above, it’s important to have multiple people involved. You may even want one or two designated folks to observe from outside the space and task them with paying attention to the overall situation and alerting others to any potentially dangerous situations that may be headed their way (such as a group of running residents headed toward a caregiver or someone pawing at the ground near them).

    green cow graphic

    The New Gang In Town
    While every situation is different, introducing multiple new cows into an established herd at the same time tends to improve the odds of an easy introduction to the herd.

    Things To Keep In Mind After Conducting Cow Introductions

    Once you’re confident that everyone is settled in and is safe to stay together without supervision, there are still important things to keep in mind as everyone adjusts to their new living arrangements.

    Make Sure Everyone Has Easy Access To Resources

    It’s important to watch closely to ensure that everyone in the group continues to have easy access to resources such as hay and water and that they can easily seek shelter if they so choose. A quick peek in on the group may reveal no obvious tension within the group, but upon further observation, you may notice that a certain individual(s) is too nervous to approach the hay feeder or water trough when someone else is nearby or that they are reluctant to go inside when other cows are there. In some cases, offering additional resources and making sure those are spread out may alleviate tensions. For example, if you find that certain individuals are nervous to approach hay feeders when others are eating, offering additional hay feeders may be necessary, even if technically all the residents should be able to physically access hay at the same time. By spreading feeders out within the space, individuals who may be more nervous or who wish to keep their distance from others will be able to eat more comfortably.

    Watch For Signs Of Tension When Residents Are Confined

    If residents must be closed in due to dangerous conditions or to prepare for a health care procedure, be sure to watch closely for signs of tension. When residents have ample room to spread out you may see no obvious signs of discord, but this may change when they are confined. To avoid undue stress and possible injury, you may need to temporarily separate residents who are not getting along during times when they must be in more confined spaces.

    While following the guidance above (and the guidance contained in Preparing For And Conducting Resident Introductions) can help set you up for success, it’s important to remember that every individual and situation is unique. Some introductions may take more time than others, and some residents may simply never get along, so it’s always a good idea to have a plan B in mind!


    Cattle Behavior and Implications to Performance and Health |  Jon N. Huxley, University of Nottingham (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Understanding Bovine Behavior for Safe Handling | Sarah Wagner, DVM, PhD, American Association of Bovine Practitioners Conference Proceedings (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Non-Compassionate Source?
    If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

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