Dairy Cow Behaviour

July 2017

Creating models to understand animal behaviour on farm at AgResearch

Welfare research is an important area to research to address the growing concern of consumers about how animals are farmed. The phrase that is used increasingly in this context is “the social licence to operate”. 

AgResearch scientist Gosia Zobel says welfare is more than just health and production - it includes naturalness and feelings and how an animal experiences its life. 

Sentience in animals is now recognised in the NZ Animal Welfare Act (2015) but Gosia says the full significance of this in law is not understood and scientists are only now learning how to measure and assess naturalness and affective state. 

Gosia says providing animals a good life is not simply about eliminating negative experiences but also includes promoting positive ones. This would include opportunities for animals to express joyful and contented behaviour. 

Gosia has been involved in two trials – 

  1. Calf anticipatory behaviour (calves learn a task and show anticipation; ongoing video analysis to see how they respond to the different treatments) 
  1. Cow hides - focusing on cow and calf behaviour at calving. 

Gosia says that in New Zealand, dairy calves are typically housed in groups, but even with social contact, these environments don’t offer much stimulation. Earlier research has suggested play behaviour is a strong indicator of positive emotional states. She says play behaviour has been well documented in group-housed dairy calves and is also seen when calves are given access to an arena. 

One theory about a way to promote a positive effect is to provide access to an enriching environment through anticipation of a reward, and additional space for play opportunities. 

Other researchers have used anticipatory behaviours in response to a reward as a method of measuring positive emotional states. Research has been carried out on pigs and lambs but similar trials haven’t been conducted with dairy calves, until now. 

The calf trial was carried out between March and May 2016. 

64 dairy calves were in the calf trial. Each calf was randomly assigned to one of two different types of housing. 

Within home pen housing treatments were set up. Calves were assigned to either a Basic pen where calves were housed in pairs on a stone based floor, or an Enriched pen where calves were housed in pairs bedded on sawdust. The enriched pen also contained cow brushes and hides. 

Calves were then offered access to different pens - either basic or enriched. They were trained to associate a light with access being provided to an alternative pen. 

Once the door opened to allow access to the alternative pen, calves then travelled down an alleyway to get access to that environment. Calves were then allowed 30 minutes in the alternative pen before being returned to home pen. Calves were given access to either the same kind of pen, a more enriched pen, or a less enriched pen. 

The team measured behaviours such as play, head/ears/tail movements, nosing at the entrance to alleyway, orientation toward access door, freezing, vocalizations. 

Measurements were taken during and following the signal that access to a new pen was about to take place. 

They also looked at behaviours during access to the alternative environment and after the alternative environment was changed. They looked at bucking, jumping, kicking, social play, exploring, “freezing” and head, ear and tail movements. 

The whole project was recorded by video. The calves’ lying down and standing behaviour was measured using data loggers. 

Gosia says they expected calves to show an increase in play behaviour when given access to the alternative enriched pens – and conversely a decrease if the pen they offered was worse than the one they left. 

The trial work is still being assessed but she says they expect calves in basic home pens to show more pronounced differences in behaviour compared to enriched home pens, suggesting greater sensitivity to the reward. 

She says the work will have implications on how to promote positive affective experiences using enrichment, and the impact of early-life housing on the affective state of the dairy calf. 

Gosia says it is hoped that they can use anticipatory behaviours (what the calf does when it knows it is being given access to another environment) as a means of assessing the positive affective states in dairy calves. These can then be used as a model for assessing emotional responses to other events in the life of dairy cattle. 

Initial results from the trial suggest the level of anticipation prompted by the signal light was much greater than expected. 

The second project aimed to improve the knowledge of cow preferences and motivations at calving in an outdoor, off-paddock pad. 

With calving in indoor systems, it has been shown that cows increase activity, possibly as a result of discomfort experienced due to first stages of labour - coupled with the desire to seek out an ideal, and safe (from the cow’s perspective) calving location. 

Gosia says closed-in pads typically have a high stocking density which might be convenient for the farmer during calving - but provide cows with little to no opportunity to distance themselves from other cows. 

Lack of isolating ability introduces the possibility of calves being "stolen" or "mismothered" by other cows. This in turn may mean the calf loses out on receiving its mother's colostrum.

The theory behind the trial is that providing cubicles to cows during calving will solve those problems. 

100 dairy cows at the Tokanui Research Farm were put on calving/stand off pads for calving from afternoon to morning.

One of the pads had calving hides - consisting of L shaped gates covered in weed matting – which creates a small “pen” within the pads. 

The project measured the time cows spend using calving hides, the number of hides occupied, and the number of calves born in the hides versus outside of them. Also noted were cows taking other cow’s calves, calf suckling behaviour and any aggressive displays. 

Gosia says in this trial they wanted to know if cows would use the hides when given the option. They were also keen to know if calves are stolen by other cows. There were also questions around how long calves spent suckling, how much time cows spent in the hides before calving, and when they’re not given access to a hide, whether cows attempt to isolate themselves in other ways.