Agriculture Science Today Episode 008: “Calf Smarts”

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Agriculture Science Today Episode 008

“Calf Smarts”

Group raised calves at Zweber Farms


This week Tim and Steph talk about group housing dairy calves and some new research that suggests the practice may help them be smarter cows better able to deal with change. We had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rebecca Meagher a coauthor on the paper who gave us some great insight into the animal behavior research field.

Random Chatter About Our Week

Steph noted that she helped out at the Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge this past week. You can learn more about that great learning and networking opportunity afforded to college students here.

Tim talked about going to the Organic Valley annual meeting and receiving a milk quality award. To see the other farms who won awards you can view the press release here.

Short Preview of the Study and Results

Steph started off mentioning some calf behavior research she had done as an undergrad but unfortunately we don’t have a link to the paper if it has even been published. If we do find it we will post it on here for you all to read.

The first test they did on the two groups of calves was in a Y-maze with two choices associated with black or white colored square and a full or empty bottle of milk. After the calves were able to correctly associate the side of the maze with the full bottle reward they switched it. The side that previously had the full bottle was now empty and vice versa. They then measured the number of correct choices the calves made. The results of the test were the same during initial training for both groups but after switching the bottles around the group housed calves adapted to the change quicker.

The second test they did was a novel object test. They put a plastic bin in the pen with each calf and measured the amount of time the calf spent interacting with the object. The results of the test were that individually housed calves spent significantly greater amounts of time interacting with the novel object compared to the group housed calves.

Interview with Dr. Meagher

Dr. Meagher has done previous work studying behavior of mink raised in a production setting for fur and tells us a bit about that type of farming. She then described the increase in animal welfare and behavior research due to many factors including a general public interest and Dr. Temple Grandin.

Dr. Meagher next described the study construction and why they chose to use the two tests they did for testing the cognitive ability of calves. The two tests have been used in rats and other animals in the past for cognitive ability testing so they picked those tests based on them being accepted in this type of research.

Applicability of the Research

The benefit of calves being housed together is that they could be less stressed by changes in their environment in the future. Providing social contact for calves and more variability in their environment seems to cause a biological change in the calves’ brains but more research will be needed to confirm this. Cows that are able to handle change well may be more ideal for automatic feeding, milking, etc which are all pretty big changes to a cow. Dr. Meagher noted that see is looking into anxiety in animals and the relationship between that and cognitive development.

That’s all folks!

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