What’s the scoop on cow poop?

This blog post was written by Jordan Tonooka

Eliminative behaviors are those associated with the elimination of feces and urine from the body (1). I have found that descriptions of this type of behavior vary slightly throughout the animal literature; for example, one definition states that eliminative behaviors can also hold a social function (2).

Previous studies regarding the eliminative behaviors of dairy cattle do not provide specific definitions, nor are the types of observations consistent between papers which actually utilize the term “eliminative behavior.” For my thesis work, I defined this element of behavior as having three components:

a) the actual acts of defecation and urination

b) how an animal’s eliminations can be altered in response to changes in its environment

c) and how an animal carries out its eliminations

Throughout this post, “eliminations” will be used to refer to both defecation and urination events collectively unless otherwise specified.

Dairy cattle are believed to not be “selective” about where they eliminate (3), and to not mind bodily contact with feces/urine (4). However there are cases which go against these perceptions; for instance, training allowed heifers to recognize when they eliminated (5) and cows showed preferences for clean and dry resting areas (6).

Few studies on dairy breeds exist which cover an entire 24 hours of elimination observations. These studies vary in terms of year, housing system, breed, and region, so it can be difficult determining what led to differences in frequencies. However, cows do consistently defecate more frequently than they urinate in a 24-hour period (8.50-16.1 defecations vs 7.35-9.0 urinations per 24h; references 7-11).

Studying eliminative behaviors is important in the context of a production animal system. It should be noted that cleanliness is the result of management practices, where a properly managed barn in theory results in a clean environment regardless of housing or bedding type. With that being said, minimizing cows’ contact with feces/urine can maintain foot and leg health (12), reduce the risk of mastitis (13), improve quality of lying and resting behavior,6 and prevent respiratory irritation from ammonia (14).

There is increasing interest in providing outdoor paddocks, yards, or even indoor pens to increase exercise and movement opportunity for dairy cattle. (For a detailed explanation of exercise and movement opportunity in dairy cattle, see Elise’s previous post) An extensive body of literature exists describing the negative effects of restrictive housing systems on welfare, while recognizing that indoor housing is beneficial in some respects (15,16). The general public is also concerned about dairy cattle living “naturally,” such as having the opportunity to graze and to socialize (17). Indeed, the revision of the Canadian Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle lists “exercise” and “outdoor access” as “priority welfare issues” regarding indoor housing systems (18). However, there is little information surrounding how exercise and movement opportunity might affect eliminative behaviors; particularly for animals originally accustomed to tie-stall housing.

Research Project

These issues and questions brought me to my research objectives:

1. Describe eliminative behaviors at tie-stalls,

2. Determine whether outdoor access affects daily patterns of elimination,

3. Determine whether duration of outdoor access affects elimination frequencies.

Outdoor conditions during the winter. Ground cover consisted of wood chips


The study portion of my thesis focused on the last 2 weeks (winter: March 24-April 5, 2019; summer: August 10-23, 2019) of a larger study examining the effects of outdoor exercise access on behavior and activityat McGill University’s Macdonald Campus Dairy Complex. Cows were blocked (grouped) by parity and days in milk. “Outdoor” cows were put through different outdoor treatment rotations of 1 or 2 hours. They were paired with their “Control” cow, which remained inside at the tie-stall for the duration of the experiment. The weekday routine consisted of 5 days of outdoor access. On the weekends, all cows remained indoors at the tie-stall.

Outdoor conditions during the summer. Ground cover consisted of grass

Overhead video recordings were taken on 2 consecutive days during which no cows went outside, resulting in 48 hours of continuous video for each season. For each elimination event, the time, duration, position and activity during elimination, where the feces/urine fell, and whether the elimination was within 3 minutes of standing was recorded. Barn activities of milking and the times each stall was scraped (cleaned), had fresh bedding added, and had feed delivered were also recorded.

An example of the view from the 48 hours of continuous video recordings indoors

Live, continuous observations for Outdoor cows began once the first cow left the barn and continued until the last cow entered the barn again, for 8 winter days and 9 summer days. Live, continuous observations for Control cows were taken concurrently during the first hour of Outdoor access for 3 days during the winter and 4 days during the summer. Data collection consisted of the time and type of elimination for each event.

An example of the view during the live, continuous observations of eliminations outdoors

Abridged Results and Discussion

Results for elimination frequencies and durations per cow per 24 hours showed that our cows numerically eliminated more frequently (18.6-21.1 vs 8.50-16.1 defecations/24h; 9.2-11.4 vs 7.35-9.0 urinations/24h) than what has been previously observed in stanchion barns8,9 and in a free-stall barn (7), possibly due to elements of housing/management or certain cow characteristics. Graphical assessment suggested that average elimination frequencies varied between individual cows, as observed in previous studies (7,9)

When elimination events were graphed over a 24-hour period, defecation and urination frequencies followed the same general pattern and seasons followed similar patterns of high and low frequencies during certain periods of the day. Most notable are the peaks during 5:00 and from 19:00-20:00 (Figure below).

Percentages of hourly elimination frequencies out of total eliminations, all cows during the winter. Milking, feeding, and times when lights were turned on and off are illustrated

Next are the percentages of elimination events per category out of total eliminations. To summarize, defecating while lying was observed up to about 21% of the time, and the largest percentages of eliminations fell entirely into the gutter.

Graphical assessment of eliminations that fell partly and completely into the stall over a 24-hour period (Figure below) showed that high hourly percentages of eliminations into the stall coincided with both human disturbance (e.g., milking) and the cow’s own position in the stall (e.g., forwards during feeding). Additionally, the times with the greatest proportions of elimination frequencies did not appear to be related to hourly percentages of eliminations that fell into the stall.

Percentages of eliminations falling partly and completely into the stall out of total eliminations per hour, all cows during the winter. Milking, feeding, and times when lights were turned on and off are illustrated

If you are interested in learning more, I presented my work at the Société Québécoise pour l’Étude Biologique du Comportement (SQEBC) 2020 virtual conference as part of the Animal Welfare session, titled, “What's the scoop on cow poop? The eliminative behaviors of dairy cattle and how they are affected by outdoor access in tie-stall housing. ” I also invite you to check out my Master's thesis, where I present the full results and elaborate on the discussion.


The effects of exercise and movement opportunity on the eliminative behaviors of dairy cattle are particularly relevant as the dairy industry moves away from year-long or continuous tie-stall housing systems. My literature review defined and described the eliminative behaviors of dairy cattle and identified gaps in knowledge for this topic, while my study helped to better understand how and when eliminations occur indoors at the tie-stall and outdoors in paddocks.

As a final note, I would like to thank my advisory committee and fellow lab members who have taken time to help me with my thesis and remote completion of my degree, even as our situations became and continue to be difficult and undoubtedly stressful due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


1. Semantic Scholar. (n.d.). Eliminative Behavior, Animal. Retrieved from:

2. Beaver, B. V. (2019). Equine Maintenance Behaviors. In B. V. Beaver (Ed.). Equine Behavioral Medicine (pp. 199-235). Academic Press.

3. Hafez, E. S. E. (Elsayed Saad Eldin). (1969). The behaviour of domestic animals. [2d ed.] Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins. Hathi Trust Digital Library.

4. Brantas, G. C. (1968). Training, eliminative behaviour and resting behaviour of friesian-dutch cows in the cafetaria stable. Zeitschrift Für Tierzüchtung Und Züchtungsbiologie, 85(1-4), 64–77.

5. Whistance, L. K., Sinclair, L. A., Arney, D. R., & Phillips, C. J. C. (2009). Trainability of eliminative behaviour in dairy heifers using a secondary reinforcer. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117(3-4), 128–136.

6. Schütz K.E, Cave, V. M., Cox, N. R., Huddart, F. J., & Tucker, C. B. (2019). Effects of 3 surface types on dairy cattle behavior, preference, and hygiene. Journal of Dairy Science, 102(2), 1530–1541.

7. Villettaz Robichaud, M., de Passillé A.M, Pellerin, D., & Rushen, J. (2011). When and where do dairy cows defecate and urinate? Journal of Dairy Science, 94(10), 4889–4896.

8. Acatincăi, S., Gavojdian, D., Cziszter, L. T., Tripon, I., & Răducan, G. (2011). Researches regarding elimination behaviour of dairy cows during total confinement. Lucrări Științifice-Universitatea de Științe Agricole și Medicină Veterinară, Seria Zootehnie, 55, 324-327.

9. Aland, A., Lidfors, L., & Ekesbo, I. (2002). Diurnal distribution of dairy cow defecation and urination. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 78(1), 43–54.

10. White, S. L., Sheffield, R. E., Washburn, S. P., King, L. D., & Green, J. T. (2001). Spatial and time distribution of dairy cattle excreta in an intensive pasture system. Journal of environmental quality, 30(6), 2180-2187.

11. Sahara, D., Ichikawa, T., Aihara, Y., Kawanishi, H., & Nagashima, M. (1990). Eliminative and reposing behavior of dairy cows in the stanchion stall barn. Nihon Chikusan Gakkaiho, 61(3), 249–254.

12. Bergsten, C. (2001). Effects of conformation and management system on hoof and leg diseases and lameness in dairy cows. The Veterinary Clinics of North America. Food Animal Practice, 17(1), 1–23.

13. Schreiner, D. A., & Ruegg, P. L. (2003). Relationship between udder and leg hygiene scores and subclinical mastitis. Journal of Dairy Science, 86(11), 3460–3465.

14. Hristov, A. N., Hanigan, M., Cole, A., Todd, R., McAllister, T. A., Ndegwa, P. M., & Rotz, A. (2011). Review: ammonia emissions from dairy farms and beef feedlots. Canadian Journal of Animal Science, 91(1), 1–35.

15. Phillips, C.J.C., Beerda, B. Knierim, U. Waiblinger, S. Lidfors, L. Krohn, C. C., Canali, E., Valk, H., Veissier, I., & Hopster, H. (2013). A review of the impact of housing on dairy cow behaviour, health, and welfare. Livestock housing: Modern management to ensure optimal health and welfare of farm animals (pp. 37-54). Wageningen Academic.

16. Arnott, G., Ferris, C. P., & O'Connell, N. E. (2017). Review: welfare of dairy cows in continuously housed and pasture-based production systems. Animal: An International Journal of Animal Bioscience, 11(2), 261–273.

17. Beaver, A., Proudfoot, K. L., & von Keyserlingk, M. A. G. (2020). Symposium review: considerations for the future of dairy cattle housing: an animal welfare perspective. Journal of Dairy Science, 103(6), 5746–5758.

18. National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC). (2009). Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle. Dairy Farmers of Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from: