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Introducing heifers to freestalls using a social model Nemeth, Geoffrey

Abstract

Older conspecifics can model important behaviours in group-living species, potentially reducing reliance on trial and error learning. On many farms animals are segregated by age, preventing this social modelling from occurring. The modern dairy farm is an ideal model for studying how young cattle adapt to new environments, and how these adaptations may improve through the use of social models. Freestalls, a common housing system for dairy cattle, contain individual cubicles designed to provide a clean and easy to maintain lying surfaces for cattle. However, learning to use these stalls can be a challenge for naïve animals. When introduced to freestalls for the first time, some animals refuse to lie in these stalls, choosing instead to lie in the wet manure alleys. The aim of this study was to compare the behavioural responses of naïve dairy heifers when introduced to freestalls with and without a social model that was familiar with freestall housing. Naïve Holstein heifers were randomly assigned into pairs; half were assigned a social model, and the remaining pairs were left as control groups, using 11 groups per treatment. When first introduced to freestall housing, all heifers showed a mean (± SE) 2.5-3 ± 0.6 h/d decrease in lying time and around a 1 ± 0.4 h/d decrease in average feeding time, while average time spent standing in the alley increased by 2 ± 0.4 h/d with these behaviours returning to baseline within two days. Heifers moved without a social model were more likely to lie in the alley versus heifers moved with an experienced social companion, but otherwise lying behaviour was not affected by treatment. These results indicate that the transition to freestall housing is difficult for all heifers, and providing naïve heifers with an experienced social model can reduce occurrences of undesirable stall refusal behaviour.

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Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

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