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Affirm the behavior you want to see

Learning to “Speak Cow”: Part 2

The “flight zone”

Cattle along road side are alert

These cows, though far away from the photographer, are already alert of her presence. Note that even the cow on the far right is aware. If the photographer keeps moving forward, she will move into their flight zone.

Simple livestock behavior principles can help you as a biker or hiker

If a stranger came up to you on the street, and stood an inch away from you shoulder, you would probably at least take a step away, and perhaps even assume they were deranged. You would probably be annoyed, if not angry. Not convinced? Try this out on a human near you!

Like us, cows have personal space (called a “flight zone”), and they don’ t like it when its invaded. Cows also react similarly as humans – moving away so that the human is no longer in the personal space. And, like humans, if cows cannot get away they experience stress. In low-stress animal handling, herders and handlers use knowledge of the flight zone to communicate with the animal.

For example, as handlers move just barely into the flight zone, an animal briefly experiences pressure which causes them to move. But the an experienced handler will then immediately step out, which livestock experienced as a reward (the human is finally out of their personal space!!). Experienced handlers affirm the behavior they want to see by applying pressure and then giving a reward (in a way that makes sense to the animal) when the animal does what they want.

How does this pertain to you as a biker or hiker?

Rancher with a mountain bike, and his Scottish Highlander cattle

Steve Williams is a Routt County mountain biker and rancher. Notice how close the cow approaches him and his bike. His Scottish Highlander cattle are very used to bikes, and so they are not stresses by bikes or bikers. But, most range cattle with have very large flight zone.

As a biker, you are not a herder, or otherwise handling livestock. But these concepts may make cattle behavior less mystifying. As a biker or hiker, you can always observe cattle and move out of the flight zone as needed.

How big the flight zone is depends on the breed, past experiences, and the rate of approach

One size don’t not fit all when it comes to how close you can approach an animal without causing stress

While cattle, sheep, moose, reindeer, elk and other all have flight zones, how big this flight zone is varies considerably, even among cattle. For example, dairy cattle are used to being handled and usually have much smaller flight zones compared with range beef cattle. Range beef cattle you are likely to encounter as a recreationalist will usually have large flight zones. This means they will attempt to get away when you are much further away, compared to a dairy cow. Wild animals, like elk or deer, may have a flight zone that is very large.



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.

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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