Defra - Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Science Search

Science and Research Projects

Return to Science Search homepage   Return to Project List

The influence of Social Networks on Welfare and Productivity in Dairy Cattle - AW1027

The social interactions of any animal have an enormous impact on its life. In humans for example, our network of social relationships makes a big difference to our quality of life and can even predict our life expectancy. Previous work on food production animals has generally ignored how social relationships within a group contribute to productivity and welfare, even though such relationships have been documented to be extremely important for individual health and fitness in wild animal populations. This project addresses this gap in our knowledge and will determine the interplay between social network structure, productivity and welfare in dairy cattle. In particular we will examine the implications of herd size for the formation of social relationships and the associated welfare consequences. This research will provide a detailed understanding of how social relationships influence welfare and productivity in dairy cattle and how these relationships can be managed to improve welfare and productivity.
We will use social network analysis to describe how individual cows are socially connected to the rest of their herd. We will observe and record various social interactions between individuals and use this information to quantify the social structure of our study animals. In our network analyses we will first explore the relationship between the social position of an individual and its productivity and welfare. We will ask "are individuals that form stronger 'friendships' healthier and do they produce more milk?". We will look at the productivity and welfare consequences of the addition and removal of cows. A typical UK dairy herd sees approximately 25% of cows replaced every year. This turnover of individuals may have a large effect on stress and productivity of both new and old herd members. It also happens to provide a rather rare opportunity for us to examine in detail the effect of changes of group composition on social network structure, and the consequences of these effects. We predict that the consequences will depend on which animals are removed. For example, removing a socially central individual that is important in maintaining social cohesion may have a deleterious effect on the remaining herd members. We will identify how dairy farmers can manage rapid turnover of herd members so as to minimise social disruption. Dairy farming accounts for ~18% of UK agricultural production by value with an annual turnover of ~£6 billion. This work will have applied ramifications for dairy farmers, policy makers and the UK economy and will be of significant interest to the general public.
Objective 1. Determine how an individual's social network position relates to its welfare and productivity.

Objective 2. Determine the consequences of network perturbation for health and productivity.

Objective 3: Determine the implications of herd size on the structure of social relationships.
Time-Scale and Cost
From: 2012

To: 2015

Cost: £121,055
Contractor / Funded Organisations
University of Exeter
Animal Welfare              
Fields of Study
Animal Welfare