Effect of group size and health status on behavior and feed intake of multiparous dairy cows in early lactation

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Dairy cows in early lactation are often housed in a large group, where they may have to compete for access to feed and space. However, a cow's ability to compete may be impaired due to production disease, and housing in a small group with minimal competition may be beneficial for cow welfare. The aim of this study was to investigate the effect of group size and health on social and feeding behavior of cows during the first 3 d after introduction to a new group. Data included 54 multiparous Holstein-Friesian cows that were moved from an individual maternity pen and individually joined an existing group pen for 6 (N6) or 24 cows (N24) on d 4 after calving. Cows were considered sick if they were diagnosed with and treated for milk fever, mastitis, or retained placenta, diagnosed with subclinical ketosis or metritis within 3 d of calving, or were diagnosed and treated for any other infection (n = 22; balanced across treatments). Stocking density of both pens was 100% at the feeding and lying areas. Behavioral data were collected from video recordings during the 1 d after introduction to the group pen, as well as via electronic feed bins and leg-attached accelerometers during the first 3 d after introduction to the group pen. No interactions between health status and group size were discovered. During the 1 d after introduction, N6 cows displaced other cows from feed less frequently than N24 cows (1.22 vs. 5.76 times/24 h), were less likely to access feed after a displacement (replacement; 0.29 vs. 1.67 times/24 h), and were less frequently being butted by another cow (0.42 vs. 1.69 times/24 h). Second-parity cows received more head butting than later-parity cows. Data obtained from feed bins showed that the number of replacements peaked on d 2 after introduction to the group pen. During the first 3 d we observed no effect of group size on DMI, but sick cows ate less than cows that were not sick (15.2 vs. 16.6 kg of DM/d). However, cows in N6 visited the feeder less often (42.4 vs. 55.6 times/d). Over the 3 d after introduction DMI and feeding time increased, whereas feeding rate decreased. Lying time and the number of lying bouts increased from d 1 to 2. The number of steps decreased over days, but the number of steps was higher among N24 than N6 cows on d 1 and d 2. Results suggest that cows experience less competition when moved to a smaller group after calving regardless of health status. Thus, minimizing competition by housing dairy cows in a small group for the first days after calving may improve cow welfare under commercial conditions.
TidsskriftJournal of Dairy Science
Sider (fra-til)9759-9768
StatusUdgivet - dec. 2017

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