Characterising personality traits in cattle using biotelemetry systems
MacKay, Jill Rowan Deans
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On-farm assessment of cattle health, behaviour and welfare is often a logistical challenge but necessary for ensuring high standards of welfare and production. Recently, technological advances in engineering have allowed the mass manufacture of biotelemetry systems for use in research and industry. A commercial dairy farm may now have many different systems recording information about each individual animal in the herd. One such biotelemetry system is the collection of activity data via activity monitors. These devices were initially used by farmers to detect oestrus bouts through the resulting rise in activity and over the years have been improved to collect highly accurate and specific data about lying, standing and steps recorded over long periods of time. Long term, unobtrusive recording of individual cattle activity patterns is now becoming a reality on several farms. This raises the possibility of utilising sensors to remotely quantify aspects of cattle behaviour and welfare across different farms relatively quickly, allowing for the improvement of management and breeding strategies. Before this can be achieved, there needs to be a solid understanding of how behaviour affects activity patterns and how such data should be handled. In this project, the IceTag (IceRobotics Ltd., South Queensferry, UK), was used as a biotelemetry system for recording the activity of cattle. The IceTag is a tri-axial accelerometer activity monitor with a sample rate of 16Hz which has been shown to be sensitive (i.e. few false negatives) and specific (i.e. few false positives) when recording lying and standing behaviour on adult cattle. Cattle’s individual variation in behaviour was used as a case study to investigate the usage of this type of biotelemetry system. There were two phases to the study. In the first phase, the capabilities and limitations of the IceTag sensor were investigated. This involved assessing the extent of behavioural reactions to the IceTag in cattle. The behaviour of 28 lactating dairy cattle at the SRUC Dairy Research Centre was assessed for an adverse behavioural effect of the tags. The results of this study recommended a period of 48 hours from attachment before cattle grew accustomed to wearing the tag. Following this, the capabilities of the tags were assessed. Activity traits calculated directly from the tag and derived from tag data were analysed with respect to performance in four short term tests of temperament in 67 beef steers at the SRUC Beef Unit. From this work, the good repeatability of activity traits including average bout length, daily MotionIndex and daily step count encouraged their further usage. Steers which responded fearfully in a temperament test had higher MotionIndex in the home pen (rs = 0.35, P = 0.004) and steers which were more capable of displacing other steers at feeding stations also had longer average standing bouts (rs = 0.26, P = 0.036) and were more variable in their total daily standing duration (rs = 0.27, P = 0.030). This suggested that fear and sociability related behaviours can be detected through analysis of activity patterns. This work was continued at Wageningen University’s Dairy Research Centre where activity was recorded in over 100 dairy cattle. Activity recorded over a forty day period could explain some of the variation in behaviours seen during a subsequent fear test, but not in a social motivation test. The trait ‘neophobia’ was associated with more lying bouts and a greater variation in lying bout duration in dairy cows (R2 adj = 0.15, F3,75 = 5.32, P = 0.002) and bold cows also showed less variation in their lying bout durations (R2 adj = 0.11, F2,75 = 5.63, P = 0.005). In conclusion, remote sensors are a useful addition to the ethologist’s toolbox, enabling researchers to gain some insight into how fearfully a cow may react without assessing this through on-farm behavioural testing. Moreover, this work has found that the effects of personality which can be observed in behavioural testing can also be observed in spontaneous behaviour in the home pen away from testing environments. Biotelemetry systems can be utilised as a welfare assessment tool as they record repeatable activity traits which relate to underlying behavioural dimensions linked to the cow’s behavioural response to stimuli.