Society and regional strategies 3 min

Dairy cows: all in a day’s work

Analyses of dairy cow behaviour on farms that use automatic milking machines show that cows “work”, make decisions, and take initiatives that can make a farmer’s life easier or harder. Interview with Jocelyne Porcher, sociologist and research director at INRAE.

Published on 13 March 2017

illustration Dairy cows: all in a day’s work
© INRAE C. Maître

It is widely accepted that police dogs, seeing eye dogs and shepherd dogs work. But what about livestock animals? They are given no credit, let alone attention, when it comes to rural sociology and the world of work. Studies carried out at INRAE are changing that; they have shown that cows and pigs contribute to work, not by conditioning but with their very own “personalities”. Cows invest their intelligence and sensibilities in their work. 

Tell us what you learned by observing cows

Jocelyne Porcher: Cows understand the rules imposed on them by farmers (1). For example, they understand that it’s time to leave their cubicles when the farmer starts spreading hay. Some of them prepare to get a move on ahead of time, and others wait until they hear the farmer before starting to budge. In the waiting area before the milking machines, where cows are given some freedom, a whole host of behaviours has been observed: cows avoid conflict, act politely, or on the contrary exercise authority based on a hierarchy among them. For example, a cow thought it was good fun to block access to a milking machine for 40 minutes: she tried to stick her head in the trough without entering the machine completely, to get something to eat without being milked. This type of behaviour proves that cows understand how the machine works.

What do cows expect to get out of their “work”?

J. P.: Just like for people, recognition is one motivation to work. In livestock systems, this recognition requires a reciprocal judgement that can be qualified as a “link judgement”. For cows, the link judgement has nothing to do with what is accomplished, but with the means of working: they are not concerned with their performance curves in dairy production but rather their working conditions.  And they expect recognition for a job well done. This recognition may simply be the absence of any kind of intervention from farmers who are not very demonstrative. That is proof enough that the cows are doing what is expected of them.

For people as for animals, there is work and then there is work. Some work emancipates while other work alienates. The positive or negative effects of work depend on the production system. Work can heighten the sensitivity of animals and develop their capacities or, on the contrary, stultify and make them suffer. Work is all the more positive if it allows animals to stay connected to their world: pastures for cows, who are ruminants, and undergrowth for pigs, who are ground explorers.

What are the consequences of industrialising livestock production?

Système de traite mobile
A mobile milking machine developed in Jouy-en-Josas is used in alpine pastures.

J. P.: The relationships born of the domestication of animals can be either good or bad. If animals are alienated by systems that give them no chance to be themselves, they are bad. If the domestic relationship to animals is an opportunity for pacification and reciprocal emancipation, that’s a good thing (2). The process of industrialising livestock production that began in France in the mid-19th century is shaping our relationship to livestock animals in the bad way. Such is the case with dairy production and pig rearing which for a long time has been more industrial than rural. But it’s not a lost cause. Milking machines, like other equipment used in livestock production, are not themselves necessarily alienating for animals or for farmers.  For example, we can design milking machines that are compatible with grazing and give animals a certain amount of freedom to roam around.

(1) See box 1.
(2) Porcher and Tribondeau, 2008.



Pascale Molliertranslated by Inge Laino


Jocelyne PorcherJoint Research Unit for Innovation and Development in Agriculture and Food



Learn more

Asking Animals: An Introduction to Animal Behaviour Testing

JUST PUBLISHED - Birte Nielsen, researcher in fundamental and applied ethology, offers in this book an introduction to the use of behavioural tests applied to animals. By including illustrative examples from various species, she invites the researcher to question the relevance of a given behavioural test and the interpretation of its results.

17 April 2020


Animal welfare: a driving concern

Eight researchers—ethologists, physiologists, neurobiologists, and geneticists—have received INRAE’s 2021 Science with an Impact Award. They represent a network of over 100 INRAE scientists whose focus is animal welfare and the treatment of animal welfare within farming systems.

25 November 2021


Animal consciousness: new knowledge

Do animals experience emotions? Have a life story? INRA, upon request of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), has conducted a new multidisciplinary scientific assessment aiming to produce a critical updated review of literature on animal consciousness. The results were presented to the representatives of member countries of the European Animal Welfare Network and EFSA on 11 May 2017 in Parma (Italy).

12 December 2019