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1 December, 2020

Cattle behaviour triggers health clues

A study of cattle behaviour in Australian feedlots has identified new behavioural distinctions between healthy and sick cattle which could help in earlier diagnosis and treatment of Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD).

A study of cattle behaviour in Australian feedlots has identified new behavioural distinctions between healthy and sick cattle which could help in earlier diagnosis and treatment of Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD).

The project was funded by MLA in consultation with the Australian Lot Feeders’ Association (ALFA) and led by US veterinarian Professor Brad White of Kansas State University and Precision Animal Solutions.

Researchers analysed data collected by remote early disease identification (REDI) technology at several Australian feedlots to illustrate specific relationships between individual and group behaviour in cattle and the associated health outcomes.

REDI technology provides objective, 24‑hour‑a‑day behavioural monitoring to determine changes in wellness status.

Researchers analysed animal behavioural data, disease occurrences and the magnitude of lung lesions associated with BRD at slaughter.

Early behaviour critical
Professor White said the research provides new insights through remote monitoring, which could improve BRD detection and treatment rates, as well as animal welfare and outcomes.

“We found there were some important behavioural distinctions between healthy and sick cattle, which carried through to their lung scores at slaughter and then through to carcase performance,” Professor White said.

“The more severe the lung scores were, the lower the carcase performed.

“This isn’t surprising, but it becomes important when we talk about associations between animal behaviour and lung consolidation or pleurisy scores at slaughter.”

Behaviour clues
“We found that cattle which ended up being sick spent more time at the feed bunk in the first six days after arrival at a feedlot than healthy cattle.

“Importantly, the cattle spent more time at the bunk in the late evening and early morning hours and less time at the bunk during daylight hours, compared to the healthy cattle.”

Another key finding was the behavioural difference between the sick and healthy cattle at water.

“Again, in the first six days at the feedlot, the sick cattle spent more time at the water,” Professor White said.

“Healthy cattle would spend between 1.5% and 2% of their time at the water, but sick cattle might spend 2.5% of their time or more at the water in those first six days.

“This differed by time of day as well. During the daytime, the water in a feedlot pen is much like the office water cooler – it’s a place where cattle socialise.

“During the day, we often see cattle go up to the water in groups of four, five or six, hang out for a while, then move away.

“However, at night, if they go to the water, they tend to be as singles because they’re thirsty – it’s not a social activity. So we observed sick cattle going up to the water overnight more frequently, likely because they’re dehydrated.”

At a pen level, the findings were also interesting.

“Sick cattle earlier in the feeding phase had more cattle within three metres of them than healthy cattle, meaning they’re hiding in the group,” Professor White said.

Challenging assumptions
Professor White said the findings challenge some existing assumptions about the behaviour of animals with BRD, such as cattle going off by themselves if they’re sick.

“We train pen riders to look for the cattle which are isolated, but cattle won’t do this early in the disease process.

“For most of the BRD we deal with, the main therapy is antimicrobials. Antimicrobials are more effective if given early in the disease process because there are less bacteria for them to battle, and less damage has occurred to the pulmonary tissue and lung tissue.

“We’re starting to develop a picture which illustrates sick cattle spend more time at water, more time at feed, and more time in a group in the first six days at a feedlot.

“If you ignore the water aspect, this is almost the opposite of what we tell pen riders to look out for.

“However, after the early phase in the feedlot, sick cattle get to a certain point where they can no longer compensate for their illness and their behaviour flips to doing things like staying away from the group.”

Professor White said the findings highlighted the importance of understanding the disease progression of BRD, and the time when pen riders are doing observations.

“We think a good time to observe cattle is around feeding time, or just before feeding, which is accurate if you want to observe their feeding behaviour but it’s also a high social pressure time, making subtle behavioural changes more difficult to observe,” Professor White said.

“We know BRD is concentrated at the front end of the feeding phase, so if you can observe or monitor them closely during this high‑risk time for BRD, that can make a big difference to health outcomes.”

This article was originally published in the Meat & Livestock Australia’s Feedback magazine (


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