Human–cow interactions

Humans are an important factor in the environment of any production animal. In commercial cattle production, handlers are interacting with cows on a daily basis. Knowledge on how cows see and mentally represent humans is, therefore, central to improving handling routinesand welfare.

Cattle can discriminate between humans using various visual cues (Taylor and Davis, 1998), such as a portion of their face or their body (Rybarczyk et al., 2001), or the color of clothes on unfamiliar people (Munksgaard et al., 1999). Calves can readily discriminate human handlers based on previous experience and can, after being exposed to a negative experience, develop a more generalized fear reaction to human handlers (de Passille et al., 1996). It is thus important to establish a positive human-animal relation already at a young age, which may last throughout production, and thus have a long-term positive impact on both human and animal welfare (Rushen et al., 1999; Breuer et al., 2003). Roughly speaking, the number of positive human experiences has to outweigh that of negative ones (Hemsworth, 2003); but what motivates a cow to interact with humans in the first place? Habituation appears to be at least equally as important as positive reinforcement for the acceptance of human contact by cattle (Boivin et al., 1998). Despite its trainability, the use of learning theory as positive reinforcement training for cattle to cope in various potentially stressful situations has not been made in a systematic way as is often done, for example, in horses. There may thus be unexploited potential to use well-developed training regimes from other species (e.g. Rorvang et al., 2018c, Fig. 1).

Several studies have investigated the human-cow relationship and ways to improve it. While most of these have focused exclusively on how tactile and visual stimulation can affect this relationship, humans and cattle can also interact via other modalities such as olfaction and audition. Cattle have a more sensitive hearing ability than do humans (Heffner and Heffner, 1983, 1992) and their sense of smell plays a central role in both social and sexual behavior (Wyatt, 2003). It is therefore likely that cattle gather much more information from human handlers than is currently considered. If, for instance, a cow is able to detect the emotional expressions of a caretaker, this might affect the cow's behavior. From the management of other domestic ungulates, such as horses, there is a common saying that horses can 'smell' or 'feel' a person's bad mood. Results are conflicting, but some studies indeed show that horses handled by calm and positive humans show lower heart rates and lower cortisol concentrations (reviewed in Rorvang et al., 2020).

Based on the capacity of cattle to learn and remember information about different humans, it may be fair to argue that cattle could possess the ability to learn from heterospecifics (e.g. humans). To the best of our knowledge, it remains unknown if information or behavior can be socially transmitted from humans to cattle (see Nawroth et al., 2019, for farm animals in general). These aspects thus remain to be investigated and highlight the potential to adjust the body language of the human caretakers during handling practices.

Cognitive research in an applied setting

General knowledge on the cognitive and sensory capacities of cattle is of utmost importance to develop management routines that are adapted to the needs of the animals and can foster their neural development and thus cognitive capacities. This will help to ensure animals with improved resilience against stressors in later life. Secondly, it is possible to exploit the learning capacities of cattle, for example, to improve safety in handling, to improve both the welfare of the persons handling cattle as well as the welfare of the animals.

6.1 Ontogenetic effects during caff rearing

It is often standard practice to separate the new-born calf and dam immediately, or shortly after birth, in intensive management systems in commercial dairy housing. Calves are raised in individual pens during the milk-feeding period and cows return to the milking herd. In nature and in extensive management systems, calves live in social groups consisting of not only adult cows, but also other calves. Depriving calves of access to similarly aged peers can have a negative impact on their welfare and later productivity. Housing calves individually decreases feed intake and weight gains, but also leads to behavioral problems and cognitive deficits (Costa et al., 2016). Indeed, individual housing of dairy calves can result in measurable learning deficits, indicating impaired behavioral flexibility (Gaillard et al., 2014; Meagher et al., 2015). When confronted with a learning task, calves were given the opportunity to learn a discrimination task, and then re-learn the task when the learned contingencies were reversed. Individually housed and pair-housed calves learned the initial task equally well, but the pair-housed calves were able to adapt more easily when the stimuli were reversed. Pair-housed calves also learned to memorize a novel object after repeated exposures and showed a less anxious response to it, while individually housed calves failed to habituate to it (Gaillard et al., 2014). The social environmentwas also shown to have an impacton learning in animals (Nicol, 1995). The direct presence of companions may aid associative learning in cattle by decreasing fear. For example, Boissy and Le Neindre (Boissy and Le Neindre, 1990) found that heifers (<2 years old) learned an operant task faster when tested with other heifers than when tested alone. Oppositely, they were slower to learn a task if accompanied by stressed conspecifics, and additionally their latency to approach a bucket containing food increased when exposed to urine from stressed peers (Terlouw et al., 1998). In conclusion, calves raised in isolation exhibit deficient social skills, difficulties in coping with novel situations, and poor learning abilities - all of which may influence the animal's ability to adjust to variable environments on the dairy farm.

6.2 Cow handling and training

Handling animals can be a dangerous job (Pratt et al., 1992) and research indicates that many injuries to both humans and animals in dairy operations happen in relation to manual handling of livestock (Pinzke and Lundqvist, 2007). Areas found to be especially associated with a high injury risk are situations where humans and animals interact directly, such as during moving (Rasmussen et al., 2000) and hoof trimming (Boyle et al., 1997).

Dairy cows are generally docile, but in certain situations (e.g. during moving) they may react unpredictably and thus become hazardous to handle (Grandin, 1999). Fearful cows are not only a threat to human safety, but fear is also detrimental to animal welfare and productivity. Some current approaches focus on the possibility of facilitating positive human-animal interactions to decrease levels of fear during handling. The literature suggests a positive connection between gentle handling and reduction of fear in cattle: positive contact with humans during rearing reduces kicking and facilitates milk let down (Bertenshaw and Rowlinson, 2009), and regular positive contact reduces avoidance distance to humans (Liirzel et al., 2016). In other livestock species,

Dairy cows are generally tranquil and docile, but in some situations where cows interact with humans

Figure 5 Dairy cows are generally tranquil and docile, but in some situations where cows interact with humans (e.g. during milking or moving) they may react unpredictably and thus become hazardous to handle. In order to improve such situations, using training regimes from other domestic species might be an option. There is evidence to suggest that training will reduce fear in cattle, while also improving quality of the relationship between handler and cow. Photo: Maria Vilain Rorvang.

such as the horse, there isalready considerable work on mapping how the animal reacts to cues from humans and conspecifics in order to avoid risky situations. This includes work on the transmission of safety information among conspecifics in otherwise potentially fearful situations (Rorvang et al., 2015; Rorvang and Christensen, 2018), and using habituation to otherwise fear-eliciting situations (e.g. Christensen et al., 2008) or positive reinforcement training (e.g. McLean et al., 2018). These approaches constitute good potential but have only been used very limited in cattle. One such example is the initiative to train calves to defecate in designated areas, so-called 'toilet training'. Although these studies are the very first steps, cattle show good potential to be toilet trained, which could have implications for future farming practices (Dirksen et al., 2020a,b). There is evidence to suggest that while training will reduce fear in cattle, it may also enhance the quality of the relationship between handler and cow (Ceballos et al., 2018), which may even be generalized to other handlers (Fig. 5).

 
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