self-grooming in cows

By Alison Campbell 26/10/2009

From time to time my Significant Other’s thoughts turn to life in the country. This can manifest itself in the purchase of lifestyle-block magazines. I was flipping through one this morning & came across an item on self-grooming in cows, & thought I’d look into it a bit further as it seemed to fit with my last post on cows learning to run mazes. Also I thought it was a rather neat idea 🙂

The article was based on a study done by Yute Schukken & G. Young (2009), looking at cows’ use of a self-brushing device & its effect on their health. The project looks like it was contracted by the manufacturers of the device, & it was carried out on a working farm in the US. Remember that cattle there, particularly in the northern states, spend the winter indoors in huge barns, so a lot of their normal ‘in-paddock’ behaviour patterns are quite restricted. The Swinging Cow Brush is a patented device, mounted on a post, that cows can rub up against to groom all those hard-to-reach places.

The study used 4 pens, each containing around 100 cows. Two of the pens held cows in their first lactation: one pen acted as the control & the other contained 2 of the brushes; animals were randomly allocated to a pen. The other 2 pens followed the same set-up, except that the cows were in their second (or higher) lactation. The researchers collected data on milk production, beginning roughly 3 months before use of the brushes was begun & continuing for 6 months from that point. Cows, like many (most?) other animals, do a lot of grooming, & the authors cite an earlier study that found a 5-fold increase in grooming when cows had access to a suitable brush. Schukken & Young’s animals certainly seemed to enjoy the opportunity to use the brush 🙂 


And they did seem to gain some benefits from the self-grooming. For second-lactation cows – but, surprisingly – not for younger or older animals, there was a statistically significant increase in daily milk production. The authors suggest that cows might be more likely to visit a feed station en route to the brushes, but this doesn’t explain the differences between the age groups.

In addition, cows in the second cow-brush pen (the second/higher lactation group) showed a marked decrease in clinical mastitis. For some reason (please feel free to comment!) younger animals had much lower rates of mastitis to begin with. Presumably grooming enhances the animals’ cleanliness, either directly or because they are more active & so spend less time lying around in their pens. This is an important consideration given that they spend so much time inside in relatively cramped conditions. In other words, this device would appear to have some animal welfare applications, as well as the potential to boost production. It would be interesting to see how much use it received in NZ conditions, where animals spend most of their time outside. Would cows come to the bovine equivalent of a scratching post, rather than rubbing up against trees & fences?

(I was rather surprised, on searching ‘self-grooming’, to find a range of patents for self-grooming devices, many intended for companion animals like cats & dogs. I guess that in your absence, your pet might get some comfort out of something that simulates patting, but I can’t help thinking it would be a real pity if someone spent so much time away from their pet that they couldn’t indulge in a fair bit of real hand-on-fur interaction each day. It’s good for both partners in the relationship, after all!)

Y.H.Schukken & G.D.Young (2009) Field study on milk production and mastitis effect of the DeLaval Swinging Cow Brush. Final research report, August 5, 2009.