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The effects of early handling on dairy calves' physiological and behavioural responses to routine husbandry procedures

The quality and quantity of human-animal interactions are crucial to animal welfare, productivity and management of livestock on-farm. Forty Holstein Friesian calves, from one week of age, were exposed to experimental handling for five minutes twice daily for five weeks. Calves were allocated to either positive or negative handling treatments (n=20 per treatment). Positive handling required handlers to slowly approach calves whilst using soft voices to encourage voluntary friendly interactions such as gentle pats. Negative handling consisted of continuous 45 second cycles of direct and indirect handling to discourage friendly interactions. Direct handling required handlers to use fast movements and harsh voices whilst forcibly moving animals around the pen. Indirect handling required handlers to stand in the pen, stare at the animals and tap a polyurethane pipe to make noise to maintain disturbance. Two other novel objects, a plastic bag and an empty water bottle filled with stones, were alternatively used each week to prevent habituation to the negative stimulus. At six weeks of age, all animals were subjected to three routine management procedures: restraint, ear tagging and disbudding, which occurred in stated order over a week period. There were no significant treatment differences between positive and negative groups for heart rate or heart rate variability (measured using Polar heart rate watches), eye temperature (measured using infrared thermography), respiration rates (measured visually), struggling behaviour, and plasma cortisol levels (measured during disbudding only). There were however within treatment differences in response to ear tagging, with an increase in heart rate (p less than 0.01) post-ear tagging, and in response to disbudding with an increase in heart rate (p less than 0.001), tail flicking(p less than 0.001) and cortisol levels (p less than 0.001). It was concluded that, under the conditions of this experiment, early handling does not affect the behavioural and physiological responses of calves to routine management procedures. In a follow up trial at three months of age, the initial 40 animals and 20 additional three month old minimally handled animals (controls) were assessed for ease of handling using a force test, which ranked the time and effort required to move animals individually into a crush, and an exit speed test which recorded the animals speed exiting the crush, after two minutes of restraint. There were no significant differences between positive, negative and minimally handled treatment groups for heart rate, respiration rates or behaviour in the crush. However, the minimally handled group did appear to be more fearful of humans, with a significantly quicker entry time (p less than 0.05) into the crush than positive and negative treatment groups. There were no differences in entry scores for effort required to move the animals during the force test or for exit speeds. It was concluded that, under the conditions of the present experiment, initial early handling does not appear to cause long lasting effects on calves' behavioural and physiological responses to routine farm management procedures, but minimal contact with humans early in life may lead to a fear of humans later in life.
Type of thesis
Shepherd, H. M. (2010). The effects of early handling on dairy calves’ physiological and behavioural responses to routine husbandry procedures (Thesis, Master of Science (MSc)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/5001
The University of Waikato
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