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Maternal behaviour in beef cows is individually consistent and sensitive to cow body condition, calf sex and weight

By Ilona Stěhulová, Marek Špinka, Radka Šárová, Lydie Máchová, Robert Kněz, Pavel Firla

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Beef cows’ maternal care is essential for calf survival and fitness. In this study, we assessed the consistency of maternal care within and between lactations and investigated whether maternal care increases with mother's parity and body condition and whether mothers care more intensely for males and for calves with lower body weight. The Trivers–Willard hypothesis that cows in better condition invest preferentially into male progeny was also tested. Additionally, we assessed how calf weight gain until 31 days of age was affected by cow condition and nursing frequency. The assessment was based on 58 lactations in 38 cows (20 cows observed in two subsequent lactations and 18 cows in one lactation). At 3 and 30 days of lactation, the cows were observed for 12h. Their maternal behaviour was quantified through 6 protective maternal care variables (time spent in close proximity, time spent near the calf when it was active, initiating contacts, following the calf, maternal licking, response to calf separation) and 3 nursing behaviour variables (nursing frequency, mean nursing duration and proportion of mother-terminated nursings). Individual differences in maternal care persisted within lactation; the cows were consistent between day 3 and day 30 of lactation in both the intensity of protective maternal care and in nursing behaviour. Across lactations, the cows were consistent in protective maternal care at 3 days of calf's age and in nursing behaviour at 30 days into lactation. Male calves got more protective maternal care and calves of lower birth weight received both more maternal protection and more frequent nursings. Cows in better body condition provided more intense maternal protection. The Trivers–Willard hypothesis that cows in better condition will invest more in males was not supported. Parity had inconsistent effects on the level of care. The calf's weight gain during the first 30 days was positively influenced by cow's body condition and by number of nursings per 12h. In conclusion, the study provides evidence for the existence of maternal styles in beef cattle. At the same time, beef cows adjust the level of maternal care to their own body condition, and to the sex and body condition of the progeny. Frequent nursing is beneficial for calf growth until 30 days of age.

Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 144
Issue 3
Pages 89-97
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
DOI 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.01.003
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Body condition
  2. Cattle
  3. Maternal behavior
  4. Motherhood
  5. parity