Maternal behaviour of dairy cows

I had 5 focus areas within my PhD-project:

  1. Investigating if cows prefer a specific calving pen design or level of isolation when calving
  2. Investigating if calving site selection is influenced by the site of a previous calving when cows are kept in pre-calving groups
  3. Investigating what influences isolation seeking behaviour of calving cows when kept in a self-operated calving facility
  4. Developing a test to assess olfactory investigation in dairy cattle
  5. Investigating the biological basis of maternal behaviour (main focus on pre-partum behaviour) through scientific literature and subsequently to implement this knowledge when developing modern calving housing systems

The thesis can be optained as pdf here: Thesis_samlet_print version_110418

A summary of the thesis:

A successful reproduction is important for a sustainable dairy production. The pre-partum maternal behaviour of dairy cows is important in the design of calving facilities and when aiming to ensure a successful calving. The causation of the behaviour is, however, currently not fully understood, and therefore this PhD thesis aimed to obtain new knowledge about the behaviour of parturient cows and the use of maternity pens. Five specific research questions were formed based on areas of interest within this scope; a) Do dairy cows prefer a certain type or degree of isolation when calving, and does the choice of isolation influence pre-partum maternal behaviour? b) Is calving site selection influenced by the site where another cow had previously been calving? c) Are parturient cows and heifers able to detect and distinguish between complex odours and may some odours evoke more attention than others? d) Does insertion of a gate in an individual maternity pen increase the proportion of cows calving in such pens, and might social factors influence this? and e) What is the causation of pre-partum maternal behaviour of cattle?
Five consecutive experiments were conducted and the results revealed new aspects of maternal behaviour of parturient cows. Parturient dairy cows showed no preference for a specific level of physical cover in the individual maternity pen. However, a higher level of physical cover was chosen by cows with prolonged calving duration. Insertion of a gate at the entrance of an individual maternity pen did not increase the proportion of cows calving in the pens, due to social factors. High social dominance increased the probability of a cow calving in the pens, whereas presence of alien calves decreased the probability of a cow calving in the pens. Calving site of group-housed dairy cows was influenced by the site where another cow had previously been calving, potentially due to attracting effects of birth fluids in the bedding. Parturient cows and heifers were able to detect and distinguish between complex odours, with some odours evoking more attention than others.
Based on these results and a literature review, the causation of pre-partum maternal behaviour of cattle is suggested to be the motivation to locate an appropriate calving site, by means of isolation achieved through a combination of distance and physical cover. Isolation can be achieved through a continuum of physical cover and distance and the motivation for level of isolation may increase with increasing level of disturbance (e.g. social dominance and presence of alien calves and/or birth fluids). The collective results from this thesis may contribute to the future development of calving facilities and thereby assist in safeguarding the welfare of parturient cows. Furthermore, the results highlight unexploited opportunities for using odours in management of dairy cows and design of housing systems.

Project manager: Dr. Margit Bak Jensen, Aarhus University

I feel extremely privileged to have been working under your supervision, on this great project!