Researchers have not been surprised by identifying a link between the personalities of animals and productivity. A recent study by AgResearch and DairyNZ has been published that investigated whether personality traits of pasture-based dairy cattle are associated with daily behavioural patterns and milk production.
The research was an exciting venture for animal welfare experts.
“With the law now recognising animals are sentient with feelings, we need to have more of an understanding of individuals,” Jim Webster, animal ethics office lead at AgResearch, says.
“Herds and flocks don’t have feelings, individuals do, so at a minimum, farmers need to understand how individuals are impacted by their farm practices.”
And what they found in the research was that dairy cows do have unique personalities. Their behavioural patterns are consistent within individuals, but vary between individuals, which is referred to as “personality,” and specific aspects of the suite of behaviours expressed by animals are termed “personality traits”.
“When farms had only 60-odd cows, farmers had the opportunity to know individual cows and their unique traits better,” Webster says.
“But now herds are bigger, there’s more automation and the ratio of people to cows has changed drastically, so they don’t have the same amount of time to get to know animals.
“And the codes of welfare are moving towards knowing and treating animals according to their feelings so it’s important we find ways to identify what animals need.”
The research proves the concept and the results were not a surprise. But the next stage is determining how these results could be used on a commercial scale.
“Much like identifying the personality types of a human team, if farmers have the ability to uncover underlying characteristics of their cows then they could use those to their advantage and increase the productivity of their herd,” he says.
“With another step, we may have the ability to do a few tests and manage the herd accordingly, but at a minimum at least now farmers can understand why certain animals behave certain ways and it reduces some frustrations.”
The study looked at the daily behaviour of 87 crossbred cows over a 16-day period. And they were looking at patterns of grazing, lying and ruminating time, as well as milk production and whether various personality traits influenced their behaviours.
Along with other scientific literature, they found variations in the amount of lying time for dairy cattle. And there appears to be a connection where cows with a lower tolerance for unknown objects and unfamiliar people have fewer lying bouts.
Individual variation in feeding behaviour was also related to personality traits in calves like individuals that showed greater exploratory behaviour in unfamiliar areas and had greater solid feed intakes.
“All of these indicators could help farmers determine which animals could have the best potential in their current system, or they may be able to change management for certain animals to meet their needs and ensure they get the best out of them,” he says.
The hypothesis was that cows who are more reactive toward novel or potentially stressful situations may have reduced milk yield, possibly with reduced lying time or grazing time as a contributing factor. And in contrast, cows who are less reactive in those situations may have higher milk yield, which might be related to more time spent grazing or ruminating.
They measured the personality traits of each cow in a series of short, standardised tests adapted from previous literature. The tests were aimed to characterise responses to novel situations or recognised stressful situations, or both.
“We looked at their reactions towards novel objects or people placed around a corner in the race after they exited the milking shed,” he says.
“They would encounter either a novel object attached to the railing of the alleyway or an unfamiliar woman standing immobile, wearing a high-visibility jacket and pants with her hands in the jacket pockets.”
The cows were scored on their response, ranging from stopping in the race or attempting to turn around.
There was also a restraint test where cows were held in a head bail for 15 seconds and then released. They were scored for their response, ranging from being calm to struggling violently.
There were five different tests in total and there was high variability among the responses of the individual cows.
“We saw cows that were calmer during restraint and investigative towards the novel object had greater grazing time, which likely contributed to their greater milk production compared with cows that scored low on this trait,” he says.
“And cows that were more reactive to milking produced less milk than cows that scored low on this trait.”
The results add to the evidence that personality is associated with measures of growth and productivity in farmed animals and may explain some of the variations in production seen in groups of animals under the same conditions.
“We’ve been talking about animals having feelings and emotions since the early 2000s, although the industry wasn’t ready at the time,” he says.
“Now with the law update and now the welfare codes being reviewed we are making good progress and will help animals and people achieve better outcomes.”
This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Dairy Farmer.