Familiarity influences social networks in dairy cows after regrouping

B Foris, H-G Haas, J Langbein, N Melzer
Journal of Dairy Science 2021 January 14
Regrouping is common practice when managing dairy cow groups, and it is known to have disruptive effects on behavior and production. The presence of a small group of familiar cows upon regrouping may provide social support and mitigate some of the negative effects. In this study we investigated (1) how regrouping affects social relationships among familiar cows and (2) if cows prefer familiar individuals over unfamiliar ones as social partners after regrouping. We used 3 established groups of cows to create 2 new groups, each containing 14 cows, using subgroups of familiar animals (i.e., 4, 6, and 4 cows) from the original groups. The new groups were similar in respect to the age, parity, and sire of cows. The frequencies of grooming and displacements were determined in the walking alley, lying stalls, and feed bunk by observing 48 h of continuous video before regrouping, directly after regrouping, and 1 wk later. First, social network analysis was applied to investigate the effects of regrouping on the relationships within the subgroups of familiar cows. Second, we determined if familiar cows were more or less connected than would be expected by chance (i.e., assortment), considering displacement, grooming, and feed bunk neighbor networks (derived from electronic feeder data) after regrouping. Regrouping increased the number of displacements, especially in the walking alley. Within the subgroups of familiar cows, regrouping resulted in slightly more displacements, but the network structure did not change. The frequency of grooming among familiar cows remained stable across all observation periods, and the network structure was not affected by regrouping. We found positive assortment in grooming and feed bunk neighbor networks, thereby suggesting that cows preferred familiar individuals as grooming partners and feeding neighbors directly after regrouping and, to a smaller extent, 1 wk later. The effect of familiarity on displacements depended on the pen area. The weak assortment directly after regrouping at the feed bunk indicated that familiar cows displaced each other more than unfamiliar ones, possibly because they were neighbors more often. Our results indicated that a small group of familiar cows may provide ongoing social buffering after regrouping. Further research with multiple groups and larger group sizes is needed to determine whether similar effects are consistently present when groups of familiar cows are subjected to regrouping.

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