No cow is like the other – social life on a dairy farm

This is a guest blog post from Borbala Foris, a PhD student at the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology. Her research explores the social dynamics and individual differences in herds of lactating dairy cows.

To anyone who has worked with cattle, it’s a not-so-well-kept secret that no two cows are the same. On small-scale farms, farmers still commonly name their cows, acknowledging their individual characters and the complex social relationships they express within the herd. Yet, while common sense among farmers, among those carrying out animal research similar descriptions would have been considered unacceptable or even taboo - until very recently it was ‘unscientific’ to speak of personality in animals, particularly those we raise for meat. However, during the last decade, the personality and mental capacity of cows has gained increasing attention. Importantly, it is now also recognized that the practical knowledge and experience of the handlers working with these animals are an important source of information, not only for research but also for developing practical tools to improve the welfare of cattle.

A robust body of scientific evidence shows that, similar to humans, farm animals also have personalities. Currently, this increasing knowledge is not yet widely utilized within the management of dairy cattle - lactating cattle are typically kept in groups according to their milk production and nutritional needs which results in frequent regrouping and subsequent social stress. During this process, there is little consideration of whether the personalities forming each group will be favourable in creating group cohesion and reducing stress. In fact, we don’t really know yet what role personality plays in the formation of the social bonds we observe in cattle or their long-term impact.

Even though we now know that cows have personalities, measuring it and transforming this knowledge into an applied setting is infinitely tricky. Just as your behavior probably varies between when you are alone at home and no one is watching you compared to when you are with colleagues in the office, we cannot automatically assume that the behavior cows show in a social group is indicative of their behavior in individual test situations. Also, it is not clear if the parameters that we measure as indicators of personality in cows are stable over time - a necessary requirement if we want to integrate them into long-term management strategies. Our recent study tested the personality of adult lactating dairy cattle in a classic individual test situation twice over the course of six months. We found that individual cows showed similar behavior at both time points, indicating that we measured stable personality traits. In addition, we investigated if personality shown in an individual test is also reflected within the social group in the cows’ home pen. Interestingly, the individual test showed an agreement with the first group test, but the group test results were not repeatable, likely due to group composition changes. This indicates that the behavior of cows can change with the presence or absence of specific group members, and further research is needed to reveal how social groupings can affect personality in cattle.
 

Indeed, we already know that this social ‘peer’ group is an important factor in the everyday lives of cattle. For anyone who has ever worked in an environment where they are constantly stressed by their boss or bullied by colleagues, they will likely speak to the importance of peers within this experience: This social stress has a proven negative effect on productivity and health. In dairy cattle, while there is extensive research on how the physical barn environment can be optimized to ensure the welfare of cows (e.g., flooring, bedding, size of lying boxes, feed bunk etc.), there is surprisingly little attention given to the social environment. Despite it being well known that cattle groups establish dominance hierarchies, we still know little about the more complex aspects of social relationships in groups of lactating cows.

Luckily for the cows, the wide usage of Facebook and other social networks highlighted a very useful method for revealing the structure of connections between individuals in a group for animal behavior researchers, namely social network analysis. We employed this method in another recent study for detailed analysis of socio-positive (i.e. friendly) and socio-negative (i.e. aggressive) interactions in groups of lactating cows. We found that the networks of friendly and aggressive behaviors did not appear alike. Additionally, the social behavior of individual cows differed: some were friendly while others were more aggressive. Moreover, there were also differences in the amount of friendly and aggressive behavior individual cows received. One of the more surprising results was that these patterns remained relatively stable over time, so friendly cows stayed friendly and bullies stayed bullies. Results also showed that the dominant cow does not always “have it all” within the group: being at the top of the herd may exact greater costs for some cows than for others. In future studies, the combination of personality and social behavior measurements will hopefully shed more light on the complex social dynamics in cattle groups and its connection with animal welfare.

These exciting new insights are promising steps in the direction of “personalized farming”, wherein the future we may be able to use advanced technology to characterize the personality and monitor the social relationships of cows and take this information into account when creating and managing dairy cattle groups. But for the time being, and in the absence of an HR department for each dairy farm, the status of some relationships may be best left as “It’s complicated”.


 

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