Conference proceedings article
Is cows’ qualitatively assessed behaviour towards humans related to their general stress level?

Publication Details
Ivemeyer, S.; Ebinghaus, A.; Simantke, C.; Palme, R.; Knierim, U.
Newberry, Ruth C.; Braastad, Bjarne O.
Edition name or number:
DOI: 10.3920/978-90-8686-889-6
Wageningen Academic Publishers
Publication year:
Pages range:
Book title:
ISAE 2019 - Proceedings of the 53rd Congress of the ISAE


The stress level is considered as one important aspect of dairy cow welfare. Beside aspects of
housing, management and social herd stressors, stress might also be related to the
human-animal relationship (HAR). An established and non-invasive physiological method
to assess medium-term stress is the measurement of fecal cortisol metabolites (FCM),
reflecting the adrenocortical activity over several hours with a delay of 8-10
hours due to gut passage time. For the
assessment of the HAR, behavioural tests recording the cows´ responses towards
humans can be used. Beside quantitative methods, e.g. recording the cows´
avoidance distances towards humans, also the qualitative behaviour assessment
(QBA) assessing the cows´ body language have been shown to be reliably
applicable. Thereby, QBA might reflect the cows´ responses in a more
differentiated way than quantitative measures. Using data from 316 dairy cows
on 25 German organic dairy farms regarding QBA during a standardised tactile human-animal
interaction and FCM recorded on the same day, but with time differences varying
between 0-10 h (during winter 2015/16 and 2016/17), we asked whether the cows’ qualitatively
assessed behaviour towards humans is related to their general medium-term stress
level.For QBA we used a fixed list of 20
descriptors, which had specifically been developed for this purpose. A
principal component analysis (PCA) resulted in two components: PC1 explained
67% of variance and appeared to reflect ‘positive’ (pos) and ‘negative’ (neg) valence
(characteristic descriptors pos: e.g. trustful, relaxed; neg: e.g. fearful,
distressed). PC2 explained 7% of variance and appeared to reflect the level of activation
(‘high’ activation: e.g. contact-seeking, aggressive; ‘low’ activation: e.g. patient,
insecure). Dividing the sample into four groups (pos_low, pos_high, neg_low,
neg_high) using the medians of PC1 and PC2 as cut-points, we compared FCM levels
(11,17 dioxoandrostanes, enzyme immunoassay method) by Kruskal-Wallis and
post-hoc Wilcoxon rank-sum tests. Groups of cows
classified by QBA differed regarding FCM (p=0.010, Kruskal-Wallis test). Cows reacting
pos_high during the human-animal interaction (n=65), pos_low (n=93) and neg_low
(n=99) had similar FCM levels (medians of 12.0, 10.3 and 10.4; 25-75% quartiles:
6.8-22.8, 4.9-22.0, and 4.2-18.5 ng/g FCM; p=0.225-0.699, Wilcoxon tests). In
contrast, neg_high cows had significantly lower FCM levels (6.5 ng/g, 3.7-12.5,
n=59) than all other groups (p=0.001-0.029). Neg_high cows presumably had
higher fear levels towards humans than pos cows, and expressed this more
actively than neg_low cows. Unexpectedly, however, the neg reaction was not
related to a generally higher stress level. In this context, it must be taken
into account that FCM medians and variation in the investigated sample were
generally on a low level. Furthermore, other factors such as social rank or health
status might have affected results more profoundly, deserving a more complex analysis including
individual factors as a next step.

Last updated on 2019-20-08 at 09:36