Most people know cows are a package deal. Cows are herd animals, so whenever you see one cow, you can be sure there is a whole herd of them nearby.
Originally, the wild ancestors of modern cattle were found all across Europe and Asia and traveled in small herds of around 30 cattle. At the other end of the scale, many modern farms have upwards of 10,000 cattle in their herd.
In this article, we’ll explore the average size of cow herds in the wild and in agriculture, and look at some of the pros and cons of having large herds.
How Many Cows Are In A Herd On Average?
The trend in recent years is for farmers and ranchers to move towards larger and larger herds. As farmers harness the economies associated with having a larger herd, it’s not uncommon for farms to exceed 10,000 head of cattle in regions where there is ample space.
The average cattle in a cow herd varies so much between countries and regions that it doesn’t make sense to come up with an average. In countries like Australia where land is cheap and plentiful, average herd sizes are over 250, whereas in the UK which is more densely populated, the average herd is less than 150.
The average farm size in the US and the rest of the western world is gradually increasing year on year, as land ownership is consolidated. According to the USDA, the average farm size was 444 acres in 2020, up from 418 acres a decade earlier.
Read More: How much land do you need per cow?
How Big is a Dairy Herd?
The average size of dairy herds varies dramatically from country to country. In countries like Australia and the United States where there is ample land, herds of 40,000 cattle are possible. In smaller, more densely populated countries like the United Kingdom, herd sizes are smaller.
Changes in Average Dairy Herd Sizes Across The World:
As you can see, dairy herds are larger in less densely populated countries like the US and Australia compared to more densely populated countries like the UK, where there is less space available for large-scale farming.
How Big is a Beef Herd?
Beef herds vary drastically by average size, depending on the availability of cheap, accessible land which is suitable for pasture.
Let’s take a look at some statistics from different countries to see how widely the average figures vary:
Average Beef Herd Sizes Globally:
|Average Beef Herd Size||44||412||23|
It’s worth noting that even within countries, different regions have vastly different averages, based on the climate and geography of the land. As an example, the difference in herd sizes across each country of the UK is surprisingly large, with Scotland having much larger herds on average, due to the lower cost and more sparsely populated land compared with England and Northern Ireland.
Average Beef Herd Sizes in the UK (2017)
|England and Wales||Scotland||Northern Ireland|
|Average Beef Herd (2017)||27||48||18|
The Largest Cow Herd in the World
The largest cow herds in the world are undoubtedly the dairy herds from two Chinese dairy farms.
The Mudanjiang City Mega Farm in China’s Heilongjiang province is the largest dairy farm in the world, housing over 100,000 dairy cows in total. This plant is more than 50 times larger than the largest European dairy farm.
Second place goes to another Chinese farm, Modern Dairy in Anhui province houses over 40,000 cows in total.
Dairy farms tend to be more compact than beef farms, since dairy cows can be fed on grains while they are milking, reducing the requirement for large areas of pasture.
In terms of beef production, the prize for the largest farms goes to Australia.
Why Are Cow Herds So Large?
Modern herds have been growing in size for decades. Herds are large to help the farmer benefit from economies of scale that come with owning a larger herd.
If a farm has a large number of cows, the fixed costs like employing workers and buying machinery are less per head of cattle.
According to eminent cattle historian Walter Frisch, Aurochs (the common ancestor of all modern cattle) grouped themselves into herds of around 30 cattle.
Like all herd animals, cows group together for protection and socialization.
Read More: Why Do Cows Huddle Together?
Problems With Large Cow Herds
Although there are clear benefits to owning a large herd, there are some drawbacks too.
Large farms can lead to lower welfare levels for the animals within them. A 2019 study in the Journal of Dairy Science found that there several issues with animal welfare that showed up in larger dairy herds.
1: Lack of Pasture / Low Food Quality
Large herds often have to be fed with grains because there is not enough pasture to support them all. Overfeeding of grains in dairy cows can cause acidosis in the rumen which makes it difficult for them to eat.
This is especially prevalent in dairy herds, where the cows are fed while they are in the milking parlor.
2: Lack of Housing
Many of the larger ranches are found in temperate climates which are usually alright for the cattle, however, in cases of sudden climate changes, droughts, or extremely high or low temperatures, cattle on large ranches suffer because there is not enough housing for them all to be able to go inside for shelter.
3: Increased Incidences of Injury and Disease
Large herds are more prone to disease as it becomes more difficult for the farmer to monitor every individual cow and there are more cows for any contagious diseases to spread through.
As herds move around, larger herds are more prone to lameness caused by hoof problems. Even a slight bump to a cow’s hoof can cause bruising, which if not rested can develop into laminitis, a nasty splitting of the hoof which can make a cow lame.
To sum up, cow herds can vary in size from two head of cattle in small micro-dairies all the way up to 100,000 head of cattle in the largest mega-dairies.
Although wild cattle aren’t too common, we can look at the wild ancestors of modern cattle called Aurochs for an idea of how cows would organize their herd in the wild.
In his book ‘Aurochs – The European Cattle’, esteemed cattle historian Walter Frisch explained that cows’ ancestors likely traveled in herds of around 30. This would give them ample protection, without risking any of the negative effects of a larger herd.