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The effects of a dynamic group system on the social bonds of dairy cattle.

  • Hartpury University


Presentation - The effects of a dynamic group system on the social bonds of dairy cattle.
KM McLennan1, J Littlemore2, and W McCormick3
1Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge, UK
2Countryside Management, Moulton College, Northampton, UK
3Animal Welfare and Management, Moulton College, Northampton, UK
With the welfare of cattle having not improved significantly since the FAWC’s report in 1997,
there is warranted concern by both the public and industry alike for the welfare of cattle
housed in large, dynamic group systems. One of the main welfare and behavioural aspects
that often lacks consideration is that of the cattle’s social behaviour. Cattle will naturally form
strong, long lasting relationships. Dynamic group systems remove stability in the herd and
change its membership on a regular basis. The aim of this long term project was to assess
the effects that a large dynamic group system had on the social bonds of dairy cattle. A herd
of 400 Holstein-Friesian cattle were observed between 2007 and 2011. Cattle were housed
in cubicles and managed under normal commercial conditions on a cascade system; cattle
moved through three groups (high, mid/low and dry) according to their lactation. Using an
association index, preferential relationships between cattle were identified, being stronger in
the younger compared to older cattle. These relationships were tested under both short (30
minutes) and long (two weeks) term separation. In the short term separation trial cattle
supported by their preferred partner whilst separated from the remainder of the herd, had
significantly lower heart rates (p<0.01) and significantly lower levels of behaviour suggestive
of agitation (p<0.05) compared to when cattle were supported by a familiar but non-preferred
partner. During long term separation from their bonded partners (commercial practice and
experimenter controlled) cattle showed significant behavioural, physiological and milk
production changes. When animals were reunited, no changes in behaviour, physiology or
milk production occurred. These results suggest that cattle are able to form preferential
relationships with other cattle and these relationships are disturbed by separation. As
reunion of cattle would have involved elements of regrouping, these results would suggest
that the act of regrouping may be stressful to the separation of preferred partnerships. Social
bonds in dairy cattle need to be carefully considered when designing and managing cattle
herds. Reducing the regrouping of cattle will improve their behaviour, production and
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