Cattle – introduction

Information about the physical and behavioural characteristics of cattle.

Varietal range differences

Cattle belong to the genus Bos and subspecies either Bos taurus or Bos indicus. Within these subspecies there are many different breeds that have been developed with particular production goals. In general, these production goals focus on either meat production or milk production.

Breeds of livestock

Breeds of beef cattle

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Physical characteristics

Characteristic Details
Size Varies greatly between breeds. Mature heights up to 1.5 metres
Weight Varies greatly with breed and stage of growth, may vary from 400 to 800 kg
Age at adult size Varies between breeds, between 2 and 4 years
Weight at birth Small breeds: 15 – 20 kg. Large breeds: 35 – 50+ kg
Gestation period Average 282 days, range 275 – 290 days
Number of offspring

In the case of multiple mixed sex births where placentation is shared females are generally infertile and known as a “freemartin”. They develop with a malformed reproductive tract and account for 90-97% of multiple mixed sex births in cattle.

Triplets in cattle occur much less frequently than twins. It is reported that triplets in dairy cows will occur approximately 1 in 3,500 births and in beef cows approximately 1 in 105,000 births.

Range of breeding ages Sexual maturity usually 15 – 18 months, reproductive life 8 – 10 years
Weaning age In general beef calves 6 – 8 months. Weaning of beef calves may be earlier dependent on production system and season. Early weaned calves require additional care. Dairy calves are weaned at much earlier ages. They maybe removed from their mothers as soon as they have received their colostrum
Healthy characteristics
  • Temperature: 38.6°C, range 37.0°C – 39.3°C
  • Respiration rate: 20 – 40/min
  • Heart rate: 40 – 100/min
  • Moist muzzle, active and alert, glossy coat, clear bright eyes


Cattle have eyes on either side of their heads enabling them to have a wide field of vision, approximately 330°. This characteristic is typical of prey species. This is in contrast to predators that have eyes on the front of their heads.

Image: cattle field of vision

The area to the side of the animal that is viewed by one eye is known as panoramic vision, in contrast to the narrow area in front of the animal where two eyes are used and known as binocular. Cattle detect sudden movement better than humans but are very slow to focus quickly on close objects. As a consequence they need to turn and face the movement and then view with both eyes to calculate the distance. This means that they frighten easily if handlers suddenly enter their field of vision without warning.

Cattle also have a blind spot behind them.

Cattle distinguish long wavelengths of light better than short wavelengths, meaning that they see yellow, orange and red colours more easily than green, grey and purple colours. They are unable to distinguish blues.


Cattle are very sensitive to high-pitched noise. Yelling, whistling, whip-cracking and clanging metal will increase stress in cattle. Cattle are able to point their ears in opposite directions thus concentrating on two things at once.

Behavioural characteristics

Cattle are animals that have evolved to be are preyed upon. This means that they find comfort and protection in a herd. They find comfort from being with familiar cattle. Isolating animals from their herd causes stress and may result in the isolated animal being extremely agitated and dangerous.

Stress may be also be induced by mixing or crowding with unfamiliar stock.

Individual cattle, such as house cows or school cows, may adapt to solitude, provided other welfare requirements are met. But in general cattle should be kept in groups.

The flight zone is the distance that cattle want to maintain between them and humans. A mob or herd have their collective flight zone. If the flight zone is penetrated animals move in an attempt to regain a comfortable distance from the intruder. The Flight Zone demonstrates the flight zone of sheep but the principles illustrated apply similarly to cattle.

Flight zones are not static. They vary in size, and are influenced by the environment or surroundings, the genetics and previous experiences of the cattle. When cattle become excited their flight zones increase. Bos indicus cattle tend to have bigger flight zones than Bos taurus cattle.


In general the cattle used in school situations should not have large flight zones. Cattle showing difficult temperaments should be culled and not used in the school situation. When students are involved in working with cattle in a commercial or work placement situation, care should be taken to select cattle with calm temperaments.

Cattle kept in schools should not require the use of an electric goad or cattle prod but if in exceptional circumstances, an electric goad or cattle prod is required, only the teacher or farm assistant should use it.


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