Feed delivery method affects the learning of feeding and competitive behaviour in dairy heifers

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Source: Journal of Dairy Science

Several studies have shown that adult dairy cows can display undesirable behaviour at feeding time. This includes sorting their feed (resulting in an unbalanced intake of nutrients), displacing others at the feed bunk or hurriedly eating the concentrated portion of their feed (when it is fed separately). All these behaviours can have serious impacts on the cows’ health and welfare. It has been suggested that these adverse feeding patterns could have been learnt at an early age.

The researchers in this study wanted to determine if different ways of serving feed to dairy heifers had an impact on the learning and development of certain eating patterns. Working with 32 Holstein heifers of about five months of age, the researchers fed one group a top-dressed ration (TDR: concentrate served on top of roughage) and the other a total mixed ration (TMR: concentrate and roughage mixed together) during 13 weeks. At the end of the 13 weeks, they switched all the heifers to a new TMR for the next seven weeks. The researchers found that the heifers previously fed the TDR maintained the same eating patterns they had developed during the first 13 weeks (as compared to the other group), including: more time at the bunk and more time spent feeding (particularly during the two hours after feed delivery), more instances of being displaced at the bunk and looser stools. To sum up, those who were initially fed a TDR developed undesirable patterns which, if maintained into adulthood, could be detrimental. On the other hand, the heifers fed TMR displayed a more even eating pattern during the day, experienced less competitive interactions and had better stool consistency. These observations led the researchers to conclude that long-term exposure to certain feeding methods does affect the learning of feeding and competitive behaviour in growing dairy heifers.