UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Understanding the behaviour of transition dairy cows Proudfoot, Kathryn Louise


Many concerns over the welfare of dairy cattle occur during the time around parturition. As cows transition from a pregnant to a lactating state, they are at high risk of disease and other painful conditions. In most intensive housing systems, these ‘transition’ cows are also kept in environments designed for the ease of management, with little consideration given to the expression of natural behaviours. This thesis addresses two main themes that are currently missing from the transition cow literature: 1) using knowledge of behaviour to improve management and housing practices, and 2) using behaviour as an indicator of poor health. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 address the first theme, and provide evidence that common management practices that disturb cows during parturition may interfere with calving; cows moved from a group pen into an individual pen during a late stage of labour spent more time standing in the hour before calving and experienced prolonged stage II labour compared to those moved earlier. Next, two preference studies were used to determine the type of environments that cows prefer during parturition. Results suggest that cows prefer to be in an undisturbed, secluded environment during labour and calving. To address the second theme, Chapter 2 describes the growing evidence in the human and laboratory animal literature that social behaviour can be useful as both an indicator of illness, as well as an early predictor of disease. Yet, there is little research to date making this link in farm animals. The remaining chapters describe studies that used behaviour to identify cows with three major health problems: infectious disease, dystocia and lameness. Cows with infectious diseases ate less, spent more time lying and secluded themselves from a nearby group pen, all common sickness behaviours in other species. Feeding, social and standing behaviours were also found to predict cows at-risk for dystocia and lameness well before diagnosis. Collectively, these results provide evidence that a better understanding of transition cow behaviour can be useful to both improve housing and management, as well as identify cows at-risk for poor health.

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