This is the first study to examine how social relationships within a group contribute to health, welfare and productivity.

Dairy cows' health and productivity set to benefit from Exeter study

University of Exeter scientists are undertaking the first ever study of its kind to investigate how the way dairy cows interact with one another impacts on their health and productivity.

The dairy industry is worth £8 billion a year to the UK economy and the research aims to provide information and guidance which will benefit cattle farmers, policy makers and ultimately the consumer.

Defra and DairyCo have provided the funding for this three year-study which will be conducted on farms in South West England.

Cows are social animals, which form important group structures and the addition or removal of animals from an established group can alter its dynamics. Various factors are taken into consideration when a farmer decides how to group the cows as part of the overall management plan for the entire herd. This is the first study to examine how social relationships within a group contribute to health, welfare and productivity.

Dr Darren Croft of the University of Exeter’s Animal Behaviour Research Group in Psychology said: “The importance of group stability for food production animals has long been recognised. We know that being able to live within stable social groups can significantly impact animals’ production and welfare. We hope that our research will provide important insight leading to happier, healthier dairy cows and a better result for farmers.”

Working with DairyCo, the Exeter findings, which will be delivered in 2015, will be shared nationally with farmers who could potentially use them to boost cows’ health, welfare and milk production. Using hi-tech proximity collars to record social interactions electronically, the University team is now developing the concept within an automatically milked herd at Orway Porch Farm, Cullompton, Devon. This is enabling the team to map social interactions and, in combination with observational studies, determine how the nature of those relationships may influence their health status and productivity. 

Once this preliminary study has been completed later this year, four additional farms which reflect a range of management systems and group sizes will be recruited to broaden the scope of the project.

 Any farmers in Devon who are interested in taking part in this study should contact Dr Darren Croft.

Date: 27 July 2012

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