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How individual cow personalities affect milking performance in dairy cows

Some cows can are more curious, others more shy and some may even be quite aggressive. Researchers at the University of Guelph are looking at the connection between a cow’s personality and her performance.

Dr. Trevor DeVries, a professor in the Department of Animal Biosciences at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) and Canada Research Chair in Dairy Cattle Behaviour and Welfare, has conducted a series of studies investigating the different character and temperament traits, the “personalities” of dairy cows and how it affects their behaviour and production in automated milking systems (AMS).

“Just like us, cows have different personalities,” says DeVries. “Most importantly, we need to understand how that affects milking behaviour and production.”

A personality test for cows

How do you measure personality in a cow? In DeVries’ research it starts with moving a cow to a novel and quiet pen, and observing her behaviour over 10 minutes. Some will quickly start exploring while others are more cautious. The team then adds an object that the cow has never seen before, like a yoga ball, and evaluates the cow’s reaction over an additional 10 minutes. Finally, the team introduces a novel human into the pen for an additional 10 minutes. Everything is recorded and watched carefully to score cow’s responses.

Researchers use an ethogram for scoring behavior, which includes things like vocalization, exploratory or escape behaviours, and contact with the new object or human. The time spent in each type of behaviour is divided by the total time of the test, creating a percentage of test time. Finally, a Principal Component Analysis is performed, which finds cows that have behaviors in common and clusters them together.

“in research or in farm management, we apply standardized treatments or practices, and cows respond in different ways” said DeVries. “The big question is: does a cow’s personality affect or drive behaviours and performance, for example in how they use an AMS.”

Research shows there is a link between cow behaviour and how they perform in automated milking systems

A recent study conducted by Dr. DeVries and PhD student, Anna Schwanke, shows effects of personality traits on performance in an AMS. For example, when cows received a high feed allowance in the AMS, more fearful cows did not consume all the pellets they were fed, perhaps because of being more nervous distracted them during their time in the robot

Dr. DeVries and PhD student, Jessica Brasier, also looked at how cows adapt to first using an AMS. Cows that scored high for boldness and activeness adapted better to the AMS immediately after calving, whereas cows that scored low for activeness and high for boldness performed better in terms of milk yield and milking activity in early lactation.

Dr. DeVries and MSc student, Sabina Czachor, looked at the associations between personality traits of dams and their daughters. This study identified positive associations between active dams and exploratory-active heifers, or active dams and bold heifers. There are likely both genetic and learned aspects to this among cows in the same herd.

“It is important to think about how we could potentially use this type of information on cows’ personality traits” said DeVries. “We might be able to select for a specific type of cow or perhaps change management to accommodate or shape personalities.”

This research project was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Discovery Grant, as well as from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, as well as through the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance, a collaboration between the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the University of Guelph.

Learn more

Connect directly with Dr. Trevor DeVries, Department of Animal Biosciences


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