Social relationships have been shown to significantly impact individual and group success in wild animal populations, but are largely ignored in farm animal management. There are substantial gaps in our knowledge of how farm animals respond to their social environment, which varies greatly between farms but is commonly unstable due to regrouping. Fundamental to addressing these gaps is an understanding of the social network structure resulting from the patterning of relationships between individuals in a group. Here, we investigated the social structure of a group of 110 lactating dairy cows during four one-month periods. Spatial proximity loggers collected data on associations between cows, allowing us to construct social networks. First we demonstrate that proximity loggers can be used to measure relationships between cows; proximity data was significantly positively correlated to affiliative interactions but had no relationship with agonistic interactions. We measured group-level patterns by testing for community structure, centralisation and repeatability of network structure over time. We explored individual-level patterns by measuring social differentiation (heterogeneity of social associations) and assortment of cows in the network by lactation number, breed, gregariousness and milk production. There was no evidence that cows were subdivided into social communities; individuals belonged to a single cluster and networks showed significant centralisation. Repeatability of the social network was low, which may have consequences for animal welfare. Individuals formed differentiated social relationships and there was evidence of positive assortment by traits; cows associated more with conspecifics of similar lactation number in all study periods. There was also positive assortment by breed, gregariousness and milk production in some study periods. There is growing interest in the farming industry in the impact of social factors on production and welfare; this study takes an important step towards understanding social dynamics.
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