The individual matters: Personality traits in dairy cattle


Source: The University of British Columbia

By Heather Neave, Benjamin Lecorps and Marina (Nina) von Keyserlingk

People vary in how they react to stressful situations and this can affect their health and quality of life; differences that are largely explained by individual personality traits. In cattle, we also see that individuals differ in how they respond to stressful situations. However, we do not yet understand to what extent these differences are related to individual personalities, and how these traits affect animal welfare and productivity. In a series of studies done at the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre, we investigated (1) the expression of different personality traits in dairy calves and their consistency until adulthood, and (2) how these personality traits affect how dairy calves feed, grow, interact with others, and respond to stressful management practices.

Personality of dairy cattle is measured in a series of standardized tests designed to subject individual animals to various types of challenges. These tests include exposure to new situations – such as a novel environment, an unfamiliar human, or a novel object – which are aimed at measuring fearfulness and exploratory traits. In another test, the motivation of the animal to return to the herd after a short period of isolation reflects how sociable cattle are. We found that dairy calves were consistent in their behaviour during these tests, particularly during the earlier and later periods of life. There was, however, a period of instability during puberty where personality changed, which supports work in other species showing that personality changes during major developmental periods. We also showed that calves exhibiting a higher motivation to reunite with the herd after a short period of isolation were also more likely to be in closer proximity to other calves in the home pen. These findings collectively indicate that several personality traits can be assessed in dairy calves and cows, and that these traits are relatively stable over time.

Can personality traits tell us about how well (or not) dairy calves will do on the farm? We found that more exploratory calves ate more grain and gained more weight than calves that were less exploratory. Furthermore, calves that were slow to learn to drink from the automated milk feeder took longer to complete weaning, likely because they also were slow to learn to eat from the grain feeder. Fearful calves responded more strongly to a short transportation event (to a new facility), suggesting that these animals are more vulnerable to stressful situations. These findings collectively demonstrate that personality traits can identify calves that are likely to perform well on the farm (such as growth rate), and those likely to cope well with stressful but common management practices (such as weaning and transportation). Future work is needed to explore how management of calves and cows can be tailored to individuals of different personalities so that all animals have the best opportunity to succeed on the farm.

Personality testing of dairy calves. Left: This calf was scored as a fearful calf during a novel object test. Right: This calf was scored as an interactive calf during an unfamiliar human test.

For further information, please contact Dr. Marina von Keyserlingk (

Dr Heather Neave completed her Ph.D. in the Animal Welfare Program in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia and is now a post-doctoral fellow with AgResearch Ltd. and is located at the Ruakura Research Centre, Hamilton, New Zealand.

Mr Benjamin Lecorps is currently completing his Ph.D. in the UBC Animal Welfare Program in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia.

Dr Marina (Nina) von Keyserlingk is a professor in the Animal Welfare Program in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia and a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare.

The results described in this article are based on 5 published articles: Neave et al., 2018. J. Dairy Sci. 101: 7437-7449; Neave et al., 2019. J. Dairy Sci. 102: 10250-10265; Neave et al., 2020. Roy. Soc. Open Sci. 7: 191849; Lecorps et al., 2018. Scientific Reports. 8: 16350; Lecorps et al., 2018. Scientific Reports. 8: 1421. Funding for this work is provided, in part, by a NSERC Discovery Grant awarded to M.v.K. The University of British Columbia’s Animal Welfare Program is supported by Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Industrial Research Chair Program awarded to MvK and Daniel M. Weary with contributions from Alberta Milk (Edmonton, AB, Canada), British Columbia Dairy Association (Burnaby, BC, Canada), Boehringer Ingelheim (Burlington, ON, Canada), BC Cattle Industry Development Fund (Kamloops, BC, Canada), Dairy Farmers of Canada (Ottawa, ON, Canada), Dairy Farmers of Manitoba (Winnipeg, MB, Canada), Intervet Canada Corporation (Kirkland, QC, Canada), Saputo (Montreal, QC, Canada), SaskMilk (Regina, SK, Canada), Semex Alliance (Guelph, ON, Canada) and Lactanet (SainteAnne-de-Bellevue, QC, Canada).