It doesn’t take long to realize that cattle have a social organization and hierarchy within their herd; this is often referred to as the bunt order. Anyone who’s worked with cattle for a short period of time quickly picks up on the hierarchy. Efficient cattle handlers use the bunt order to their advantage when working with cattle.

Cattle establish their bunt order, and maintain it, by bunting other cattle, hence the name. It’s a natural behavior, first seen in calves as they bunt their mothers’ udder to stimulate milk. Later, calves bunt the flanks of their dams during play, as they are learning social skills within the herd.

Bunting in mature cattle can be play, or an aggressive behavior used in establishing their hierarchy and social organization. Subordinate cattle may use bunting in defense from an alpha animal.

Cattle handlers should be aware that bunting is also an agonistic behavior, defined as related to fighting. Recognizing signs of agonistic behavior towards handlers, including threats, displays and retreats, is important for personal safety while working cattle. Cattle that are aggressive towards handlers may bunt, kick, or crush.

The Basics of Cattle Bunt Order

Social tensions increase in cattle groups that we create, versus the ones cattle would naturally select on their own. Natural social organization for cattle has cows and calves grouped together, bachelor groups, and independent bulls. The natural groups tend to be smaller than groups created by handlers. Hence, it’s important for the handler to be aware of bunting, and provide enough space for subordinate cattle to avoid the alpha cattle.

Many factors influence which cattle will dominate in the bunt order. These include:

  • Height and weight,
  • Cattle age,
  • Sex of the animal,
  • Horned versus polled, and
  • Territorial behavior of the animal.

Research has shown that weight, age of the animal, and the presence of horns are all factors that lead to a higher ranking in the bunt order. Cattle with horns use the horns to push or strike in bnting, whereas a polled animal bunts by ramming their head into another animal.

Alpha cattle will bunt the flank, rump, neck or shoulder, and when bunting the flank have the advantage over the other animal. Subordinate cattle will submit, flee or pivot back to a head-to-head position when being flanked. You may hear the term clinching referenced in discussions about bunting. Clinching happens when one animal, the alpha, pushes its head between the back legs of the subordinate animal. Cattle may also rest in a clinch position for a few moments during bunting.

Red and white cows in field looking at camera

Bunt Order as a Cattle Handling Tool

Bunt order does not frequently change once it’s established. Learning the bunt order of the herd can be advantageous in working your cattle and decreasing stress in the herd. Vision is the primary sense that cattle rely on. Handlers can also use vision to our advantage when working cattle. Watch the stature of animals during bunting, and you will note those with an alpha stance versus those with a subordinate and defensive stature.

Handlers will notice the cattle that are higher in the bunt order moving near the front of the group when they are travelling or foraging on their own. When handlers are moving cattle, the dominant cattle will be in the middle of the herd, and less dominant cattle are at the front. In this situation subordinate cattle are also behind those higher in the bunt order. It’s important for handlers not to pressure the cattle at the back, as this will cause them to flee if possible, or push on alpha cattle ahead of them and create tension and aggression in the social organization of the herd.

Cattle at a feed bunk or water trough are close together when their bunt order is similar. The farther apart the cattle are, the greater the difference in their bunt order. Alpha cattle move around less at the feed and water troughs, whereas cattle that are lower in the bunt order move around more frequently to avoid agnostic interactions with those higher in the bunt order.

New cattle introduced to the herd tend to be submissive because of territoriality; the existing herd has an advantage. In some cases, aggressive behavior escalates for the first 24 hours, and then new hierarchies form within three days. After cattle have acclimated, bunting may reorganize the social structure of the herd. If cattle have been in the same group, separated, and then re-grouped, they will maintain their original bunt order.

Hormones play a role in bunt order. Cattle that are in heat exhibit more alpha behaviors, and those that are pregnant have fewer dominant behaviors. As expected, bulls are dominant over cows. Cattle that are sick also exhibit less dominance; handlers should always be watching the herd for changes in bunt order as early detection of illness or pregnancy.

Bunt order is a natural behavior for cattle and an essential component in creating their social organization and hierarchy. Understanding the bunt order of our groups of cattle allows us as handlers to work within the social hierarchy of the herd to move cattle efficiently and reduce stress on the animals. 

References:
Cow Talk: Understanding Dairy Cow Behaviour to Improve Their Welfare on Asian Farms. (2015). Chapter 4, Cattle Behaviour. CSIRO Publishing. Available at:
http://www.publish.csiro.au/ebook/chapter/9781486301614_Chapter4 

Houpt, Katherine A. (2018). Domestic Animal Behavior for Veterinarians and Animal Scientists. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781119232803. Retrieved 10 February 2018.

Keeling, J. L. (2001). Social Behavior in Farm Animals. CABI. ISBN 9780851997179.   

McGlone, John J. (1 April 1986). "Agonistic Behavior in Food Animals: Review of Research and Techniques"Journal of Animal Science62 (4): 1130–1139. doi:10.2527/jas1986.6241130xISSN 0021-8812.

Merck Veterinary Manual. Behavior Problems in Cattle. Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com...