Do Cows Sleep Standing Up?

  • Article
  • 2 min read October 14, 2016

Virginia dairy farmer Coley Drinkwater isn't sure how the snoozing myth began but it's one she can debunk: cows do not sleep standing up.

“No,” she says, “cows sleep laying down.”

What may be surprising is cows don’t require much sleep. Drinkwater figures the 500 or so cows at her farm grab about two or so hours of sleep each day.

It’s natural for non-predator animals such as cows to sleep very little as an inherent survival mechanism against enemies, says Colorado veterinarian Greg Goodell.

“These are animals that were born under Mother Nature’s tutelage, and their behavior is based on predator awareness, so they are always on the lookout for danger such as wolves, bears, coyotes and other things that may cause them harm,” Goodell said. “Even though they are domesticated animals, this is still built into them. It’s like you or I camping in the deep woods and not sleeping as soundly because you’re wondering if a bear is going to get you or how close the coyotes are you’re hearing.”

So how do cows sleep? Because of this survivalist trait, Goodell says cows “doze” more than experiencing actual deep sleep. He compares it to a human taking a “catnap.”

“They’re mostly asleep but not quite,” he said. “It’s common to get a foot or two away from them and they’ll lift their head and look at you like ‘what are you doing? I hear you.’ Sometimes they’ll have their eyes closed but you’ll see their tail twitch or their ears move because she knows someone is there, so there are signs she is awake.”

While actual hours sleeping may be low, Drinkwater said there is no shortage of rest for her cows. It’s common for dairy cows to lounge in the barn chewing their cud for up to 10 hours a day. Cud is partially digested food that a cow regurgitates to be chewed again.

Drinkwater refers to this time as “cow meditation” when the animals rest peacefully as they produce milk. Her cows get as much rest as they desire, which is why cow bedding is such a high priority for dairy farmers.

Like her peers around the country, Drinkwater makes sure her cows have clean and comfortable bedding in the barns. She orders a tractor-trailer load of sawdust from a nearby lumber mill each week that provides fluffy bedding her cows love. There are other types of cow bedding too, from sand to straw and other materials that absorb moisture while cushioning the animals.