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The Unknown is Scary – Livestock Response to Novelty

How novelty – like the sudden appearance of a biker – can cause stress

(And, what stress does to cattle)

Mountain bikers on a trail

Photo by Chauncey Davis. Available on Flickr with a 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Anything that is new or sudden can cause stress in cows (Grandin 1989; Grandin 1980; Grandin 1984; Grandin et al. 1998).

Whether you think so or not, as a biker, you are novel to a cow, and you are also very likely to be sudden from the cow’s perceptive.

In response to a new and surprising thing (i.e., you speeding on you mountain bike), the cow may experience fear, and in turn, stress. A fear response might be bad for you, especially if the cow responds to the fear by fight instead of flee. 

But, even if you are not in danger (and in most cases, the cow just wants to get away), stress is bad for cows. Researchers have found that stress causes health problems in livestock, and reduced weight gain, and if sustained, can even reduce the quality of meat at slaughter. In short, stress has physical impacts. (Grandin 1989; Grandin 1980; Grandin 1984; Grandin et al. 1998).

With livestock, stress is in the eye of the beholder: if it feels stressful, it is stressful, regardless of the situation (Smith 1998).

So, what can you do as a mountain biker?

Scottish Highlander cattle and mountain bike

These Scottish Highlander cattle are used to bikes and not stressed. Since bikes are not new, and they are accustomed to people, they are grazing rather than being on high alert.

  • If you come upon a herd of cattle, slow down (Smith 1998). (Remember, it’s not only new things, speed causes stress)
  • Consider getting off your bike, thus identifying yourself as a human.
  • Use calm body language (Cote 2004). Fast, jerky motions are associated with predators (Grandin 1998).
  • Watch for what the cow is trying to tell you to let you know how to proceed
  • Affirm the behavior you want to see. For example, if the cow moves out of your way, step back (more on why this works).
  • If the cow is running away from you, you have probably stressed it. Slow down, take a step back, to signal to the cow that you are not a predator.
  • Sometimes slowing down is the fastest way forward (Smith 1998). Cattle might move away from you naturally much faster than they would if you try to push them.

Temple Grandin writes on the power of slowing down……

“The author has observed cattle that will approach and manipulate a piece of paper lying on the ground when allowed to voluntarily approach it, but they will balk and jump away if someone attempts to drive them over it.” (Grandin 1998)



1) Smith, B. 1998. Moving ’em: a guide to low stress animal handling. The Graziers Hui.
2) Cote, S. 2004. Stockmanship: A powerful tool for grazing lands management. Idaho Natural Resources Conservation Service
3) Grandin, T. 1989. Behavioral principles of livestock handling. The Professional Animal Scientist 5:1-11.
4) Grandin, T. 1980. The effect of stress on livestock and meat quality prior to and during slaughter.
5) Grandin, T. 1984. Reduce stress of handling to improve productivity of livestock.
6) Grandin, T., J. Oldfield, and L. Boyd. 1998. Reducing handling stress improves both productivity and welfare. The Professional Animal Scientist 14:1-10.

Interested in learning more about animal behavior?

The Stockmanship Journal is a great resource, as is the BEHAVE project, and Temple Grandin’s website


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