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Publication #AN356

Recognizing Heat Stress in Dairy Cows1

Izabelle Toledo and Geoffrey Dahl2

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The key to manage heat stress is to understand when heat stress begins!

What is heat stress?

Heat stress occurs when the heat produced by a dairy cow’s biological processes and the heat the cow absorbs from the environment exceeds the cow’s capacity to lose heat.

Figure 1. 

A common index used to evaluate heat stress in dairy cows is the Temperature Humidity Index or THI, which is calculated based on ambient temperature and relative humidity.

[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Table 1. 

The relationship between THI, heat stress levels and body responses such as respiration rates and rectal temperature.


Heat Stress Level

Respiration Rate (bpm)

Cow Body Temperature



> 60

101.3°F (38.5°C)


Mild to Moderate

> 75

102.2°F (39°C)


Moderate to Severe

> 85

104° F (40°C)

> 90


> 100

106° F (41°C)

Negative Effects of Heat Stress

In persistent hot, sunny, and humid conditions, the cow’s cooling mechanisms are insufficient to dissipate all the heat accumulated and as a consequence, the cow’s body temperature begins to rise, triggering a cascade of physiological changes to reduce this excessive heat load in the body.

      • Behavioral Changes

      • Health Issues

      • Impaired Reproduction and Immune Performances

      • Decreased Milk Production

      • Decreased Profitability

By the time physical indicators of heat stress are observed, production losses have already begun!

What are the visible signs and consequences of heat stress in dairy cows?

Figure 2. 

Visible signs and consequences of heat stress in dairy cows.

[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]



This document is AN356, one of a series of the Department of Animal Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date June 2019. Visit the EDIS website at for the currently supported version of this publication.


Izabelle Toledo, regional Extension dairy agent II, UF/IFAS Extension Noetheast District; and Geoffrey Dahl, professor, Department of Animal Sciences; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.