The novelty of being handled during milking contributes to peripartum stress in dairy heifers with possibly adverse effects on their well-being and health. The present study investigated (1) heifers' behavioural responses to handling over the course of four standardized handling sessions and (2) whether this handling just before parturition led to reduced heifers' avoidance distances and reduced agitation behaviour in the milking parlour as well as improved udder health. The standardized handling was based on Tellington TTouch and always started with touching the heifers' hind quarters (HQ), proceeding over dorsum, neck, flank and belly (rest of the body) to hind legs and udder (HLU) as the target region. Altogether 13 and 14 heifers on three farms were handled or served as control, respectively. Behavioural responses to the handling in the four sessions were observed from videos in 10 of the handled heifers. All animals were tested for their avoidance distance towards an experimenter before handling and 3 to 4 days p.p. Additionally, their agitation behaviour (stepping and kicking) during two milkings at 2 to 4 days p.p., as well as somatic cell scores of the first three monthly milk test recordings (average and difference between first and third test day) were recorded and analysed with mixed models. In the four handling sessions the relative duration of aversive responses to touching at HQ decreased after the first handling. Also the proportion of time in which touching of HLU was tolerated increased in the second and third handling session compared to the first session. However, no significant differences between handled and control heifers were found regarding their behaviour after parturition and their udder health, with large variance in responses during milking. Possibly the handling was not intensive or long-lasting enough and agitation during the first milkings is not only related to fear of humans. Further research is needed to find recommendable and time-efficient on-farm handling methods in order to reduce peripartum stress in heifers.
|Publication Title||Applied Animal Behaviour Science|
|Author Address||Farm Animal Behaviour and Husbandry Section, University of Kassel, Nordbahnhofstrasse 1a, 37213 Witzenhausen, Germany.email@example.com|
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