The effects of feed area design on the social behaviour of dairy cattle
Rioja-Lang, Fiona C
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The overall objective of this thesis was to assess the effect of feed area design including feeding space availability, barrier type and stocking density, on the feeding behaviour of dairy cows. Feed intake in dairy cows is directly related to milk production, thus a good food supply is extremely important to the modern, high producing dairy cow. Intake is critical for improving milk production, health, body condition and the welfare of the animals. Feeding designs can have a major effect on behaviour and feed intake, therefore it is an important consideration when housing cattle and other livestock. The effect of altering the amount of space allowance available at the feed-face highlighted a significant effect on feeding patterns. As the space allowance increased the number of feeding bouts also increased (P<0.001) and length of bouts decreased (P<0.05). However, when provided with extra space at the feed-face, cows did not increase their feed intake as hypothesised, possibly as a result of the differences between individual animals being masked by an overall group effect. The number of aggressive interactions decreased as the space allowance increased (P<0.001) and furthermore, the number of times individuals were displaced from the feeding area also decreased as the space allowance increased (P<0.05). Subsequently, preference tests were used as a behavioural tool to determine how individual cows perceive their feeding environment with specific emphasis on understanding what difficulties low ranking animals face at the feed-face. Subordinate cows showed a significant preference for feeding alone rather than next to a dominant when they were offered high quality feed on both sides of a Y-maze test (P<0.001). When “asked” to trade-off between feed quality and proximity to a dominant cow, subordinate cows chose to feed alone on low quality food. A follow-on experiment using the same methodology was undertaken and aimed to identify the space allowances at which cows would not trade-off food quality. Four different space allowances were tested. At the two smaller space allowances, cows preferred to feed alone and for the two larger space allowances, cows had no significant preferences. The feed barrier has been shown to have a major effect on feeding and social behaviour of group housed dairy cows. A barrier design that provides some sort of separation between cows has also been shown to reduce competition. The aim of the final study was to determine if a feed barrier which obscured the cows’ visual field whilst feeding would increase vigilance behaviour and alter normal feeding behaviour, particularly for subordinates. Two different types of feed barrier were tested at four different stocking densities. The average daily feeding time was higher when cows were fed using a conventional headlock system compared to an electronic feeding system (P<0.05). All groups of cows displayed vigilance scans, however, neither type of barrier, feed space allowance, or dominance rank had an effect on the frequency of scans. These results indicate that neither feeder design nor stocking rate affect vigilance in dairy cows, at least over the treatment conditions assessed in the current study. The results of this research illustrate that to achieve the maximum levels of feeding behaviour and a reduction of aggressive behaviour, the cows’ environment must be such that it provides sufficient space and feed barrier design which will allow normal social behaviour. Over-stocking at the feed-face should be avoided to reduce competition. Future research should consider the long term effects of over stocking and competition on dry matter intake (DMI), milk production and health.