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Are You A Source of Stress or Comfort for Your Cows?1

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Cattle’s fear of people can be a major source of stress. This stress causes lost production and reduced milking efficiency. Stressed cattle are difficult to handle and there are increased risks of accidents for handlers and animals. 8 Much of this fear results from the way the cattle are handled, which raise concerns about animal welfare. 8 Cattle quickly learn to recognize individual people and to distinguish those who treat them gently from those who don’t. 8 You can reduce the fear in your animals. Facilities used during handling must allow easy animal flow so there will be less need to push them around. If you treat a cow aversively (e.g. during veterinary treatment), wear clothing of a special colour or do it in a special place rather than in the cow’s stall and certainly not in the milking parlour. The animal will associate the aversive treatment with the colour of the clothing or with the place, and not with you. This will facilitate other manipulations you might need to do. 8 What is important is to make sure that the animals respect you and that they are used to having people around and being handled.
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   Advances in Dairy Technology (1999) Volume 11, page 347 Are You A Source of Stress or Comfort for Your Cows? 1   A.M.B. de Passillé and J. Rushen Dairy and Swine Research and Development Centre, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, P. O. Box 90, 2000 Road 108 East, Lennoxville, QC J1M 1Z3 Canada; E-mail: depassilleam@em.agr.ca    Take-home messages 8  Cattle’s fear of people can be a major source of stress. This stress causes lost production and reduced milking efficiency. Stressed cattle are difficult to handle and there are increased risks of accidents for handlers and animals. 8  Much of this fear results from the way the cattle are handled, which raise concerns about animal welfare. 8  Cattle quickly learn to recognize individual people and to distinguish those who treat them gently from those who don’t. 8  You can reduce the fear in your animals. Facilities used during handling must allow easy animal flow so there will be less need to push them around. If you treat a cow aversively (e.g. during veterinary treatment), wear clothing of a special colour or do it in a special place rather than in the cow’s stall and certainly not in the milking parlour. The animal will associate the aversive treatment with the colour of the clothing or with the place, and not with you. This will facilitate other manipulations you might need to do. 8  What is important is to make sure that the animals respect you and that they are used to having people around and being handled. 1  The work of J. Rushen and A. M. De Passillé is supported by grants from the Dairy Farmers of Canada and Novalait Inc.  348 de Passillé & Rushen    Introduction  Animal welfare is one of the newer socio-economic issues that the dairy industry must face. Initial concern for animal welfare issues in North America was prompted by European animal welfare legislation. However, industry interest in animal welfare is likely to be driven in the future by increasing concern about the image of the industry, a perceptible shift in consumer demand toward “green” farm produce and the close link between animal welfare and productivity. Research has now identified the widespread effects of stress on animal health and productivity and poor animal welfare often translates into poor health and poor production. Under stress, estrus and calving are delayed, growth slows down, meat quality is decreased, and animals become more susceptible to disease. Other research shows a decrease in feed intake and feed efficiency due to stress. Stress can also change milk composition and increases milk fat content. All these effects of stress can mean severe economic consequences for dairy farmers. This is the most important reason for the dairy industry to be active in promoting good animal welfare. In this article, we discuss research showing how fear of humans is a source of stress for dairy cows, how cattle become fearful of people and how this fear reduces handling efficiency and milk production. Finally, we suggest steps that producers can take to reduce fear among their animals, and minimize the deleterious effects on the animals’ behaviour, productivity and welfare.    Dairy Cattle’s Fear of Humans. The way that animals are handled by their caretaker, and the fear of people that they can consequently develop, has a major impact on their welfare. Animals’ fear of people can be a major source of stress, a cause of much lost production, and can make handling difficult and dangerous to both animal and handler. Much of this fear results from certain forms of handling which are aversive to the animals. While it may not be surprising that aversive handling can reduce production, what is surprising is the magnitude of the effects. Despite thousands of years of domestication, studies of feral and free-ranging livestock have shown that the behaviour of our agricultural animals still closely resembles that of their wild ancestors. As prey species, the lives of domestic ruminants are largely geared towards detecting and escaping predators. Fear plays a crucial role in this process by motivating animals to avoid potentially harmful situations. Humans can evoke fear in animals by virtue of their relative size, and the propensity for quick or unpredictable movements. In traditional, small-scale agriculture, animals habituate to the presence of people by virtue of routine neutral exposure to humans in the course of daily management. Modern farm   Are You A Source of Stress or Comfort for Your Cows? 349 practice, however, has reduced much of the opportunity for frequent, benign contact between farm animals and people. Farms are larger, reducing the opportunity for contact between the human caretakers and any given individual animal. Labour saving technology typically further reduces contact time between stock persons and each animal. In particular, many of the opportunities for positive interaction with livestock, such as at feeding time, have been replaced by mechanical or electronic feeders. On the other hand, many of the aversive tasks associated with managing farm animals, such as catching and restraint for vaccination, foot care, administration of medication, and transport, still require human intervention. As a result, there is the risk that animals’ direct experiences with humans will be biased increasingly towards the negative. Without the balancing effect of positive daily interaction, we may reinforce our animals’ natural fear of humans, and the physiological, production, and welfare consequences of that fear.    Animals’ Fear of Humans and Productivity Recent studies show a strong relationship between cattle’s fear of humans and their productivity. Hemsworth et al. (1995b) compared 14 dairy farms in  Australia and subjected the cows to a simple measure of fearfulness, which was based on the distance that the cows kept from the experimenter during a standard test. This measure was strongly, negatively correlated with mean milk production of the farm, indicating that a surprising 30-50% of the variance between farms in milk production could be explained by the level of fear shown by the cows to humans. Some of the differences between animals in the extent that they are afraid of people may reflect genetic differences. However, it can also reflect the way that animals have been handled. It has been suggested that when animals are repeatedly handled by people in a manner that they find aversive, the animals learn to associate the handling with people and hence develop a learned fear of people.    Effect of Aversive Handling on Cattle’s Fear and Productivity  A large number of studies have experimentally varied the type of handling in order to change the animals’ level of fear of humans, and thus to examine the effect of this on their productivity. Such an experimental approach can determine whether the amount and type of handling received directly affects the level of fearfulness of the animals, and whether this, in turn, reduces productivity. Seabrook (1994) reports one study that compared milk yield of cows treated aversively (slapped, kicked etc.) with those treated gently (stroked, patted etc.).  350 de Passillé & Rushen Milk yield was reported to be a substantial 664 L/cow/year lower (i.e., a reduction of 13%) in the aversively handled animals. In addition, the aversively handled cows took almost twice as long to enter the milking parlour, and defecated in the parlour six times as often, all of which could reduce the efficiency of the milking operation. Recently, Breuer et al. (1997) found that dairy heifers that were hit for a few minutes before and after milking (which can occur in practice when cattle are moved to a milking parlour) showed a reduced milk yield, an increased loss of weight during the first weeks after calving, and a much higher incidence of lameness than heifers that were handled more gently.    Effect of Gentle Handling on Fear and Productivity In two studies, Hemsworth et al. (1987, 1989) gave heifers extra handling at the time of their first calving. During subsequent milkings, the number of times the milking cluster became dislodged (due to movement of the cow) was reduced, as was the need for extra human assistance at milking. Thus, the efficiency of the milking process was improved. There were no effects on the duration of milk let-down or upon milk production. The time taken to approach the experimenter was reduced by the extra handling, suggesting a reduced level of fearfulness. However, there was no correlation between the cows’ approach time and milk yield. Boissy and Bouissou (1988) reported that extra handling given to heifers during the first nine months of life reduced the “flight distance” and increased the amount of feeding the animals did in the presence of humans, presumably indicating reduced fearfulness. No measures of subsequent productivity were taken. Extra gentle handling of adult cattle has been shown to increase the tendency of the animals to approach people (Hemsworth et al. 1996a). Extra handling of heifers may improve their behaviour during the first milkings, although the large variability between heifers in the response to milking may mask this effect (Bremner 1997).    Physiological Effects of Handling It should not be surprising that an animal’s fear of humans can have a direct negative effect on productivity, given evidence of physiological disturbances (“stress”) associated with this fear. Cortisol concentrations in milk were found to be lower in cows given extra handling during first calving, suggesting less stress at milking for the handled cows; however, heart rates at milking did not differ. Milk cortisol concentrations were positively correlated with the time taken to approach the experimenter (Hemsworth et al. 1989). Cortisol responses to handling were also found to be lower in heifers given extra handling during their first nine months of life (Boissy and Bouissou 1988). Heart rates of cows in the milking parlour were higher when the cows were handled by relief workers than
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