The William H. Miner

Agricultural Research Institute

Miner Institute
Farm Report

ALUMNI CORNER: BEHAVIORS OF TRANSITION COWS AND HEIFERS

Management strategies are critical for a successful transition period and may differ for cows and first-calf heifers. There are multiple areas where recommendations vary for the two groups (nutrition, grouping, etc…). We conducted a study to characterize and compare the behaviors of cows and heifers during the transition period in a non-competitive setting.
Ten cows and eleven heifers, housed in a tie-stall facility, were utilized to compare the behaviors of cows with heifers. Using time-lapse video recording, all animals were videotaped 24 hours per day, beginning 15 days prior to expected calving through day 14 after calving. On days -15, -6, -2, 2, 8 and 13 relative to actual calving, durations of standing, lying, feeding, ruminating, and management behaviors were monitored and recorded for 24 hour periods of time. Daily time budgets were then calculated and compared.

Durations of behaviors on the same days were not affected by parity. In general, animals spent 12.7 hours standing, 10.3 hours lying, 3.4 hours feeding, 7.4 hours ruminating and 0.3 hours in management prior to calving and 1.9 hours in management after calving. These durations agree with those reported by Grant and Albright (2001) who reported that dairy cows spend 10 hours lying, 3 to 5 hours feeding, 7-10 hours ruminating and 2-3 hours engaged in management activities. Tie-stall facilities tend to decrease social interactions, therefore it could be concluded that in similar non-competitive environments there would be no significant differences in the daily time budgets of transition dairy cows versus heifers.
The figure has the changes in behaviors across the transition period for cows and heifers. As they approached calving both cows and heifers increased time spent standing and reduced time spent lying, ruminating, and feeding; possibly indicating unease and discomfort. In fact, it is generally accepted that activity levels of cows preparing to calve increase noticeably and this increase in activity is used as an indicator of impending calving. After calving, a further increase in standing may be associated with unfamiliarity with daily routines, including milking and feeding schedules. After calving as animals became accustomed to management schedules and recovered from calving they returned to lower durations of standing and increased time per day spent lying, ruminating and feeding.

This study indicates that the time budgets of dairy cows are very similar as they move through the transition period, regardless of parity. This implies that all dairy cattle have biological time budgets, with requirements for specific behaviors. Dairy producers should take these time frames into account as they develop daily feeding and management routines, design transition facilities, and handle cattle during the transition period. Manipulating behaviors may have an impact, either positive or negative, on the lactational performance of those cows. Currently, no recommendations can be made as to which behaviors should be addressed, or how they may impact later performance of cows and heifers, but it is interesting to note that cattle moving through the transition period behave similarly.

— Kylie Preisinger
ADM Alliance Nutrition, Inc.

* I was a member of the 2001 Advanced Dairy Management class (Kylie Daniels), graduating with my BS from UVM that spring. My time at Miner convinced me that graduate school would be the next step for me. So I then attended Purdue University where I received my MS in 2004. Since leaving Purdue I have been the Manager of Field Research for ADM Alliance Nutrition based out of Quincy, Illinois. This article includes data generated from my thesis research at Purdue University.

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