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Dernière mise à jour : Mai 2018

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The social behaviour of cattle and its consequences on breeding

INRA Prod. Anim., 18(2), 87-99.


1 INRA, Physiologie de la reproduction et des Comportements, UMR 85, F-37380 Nouzilly

2 INRA, Unité de Recherches sur les Herbivores, F-63122 Saint-Genès Champanelle


Cattle are social animals that live in large, highly organised groups with stable social relationships. This high level of socialisation that has probably been at the basis of their domestication helps the farmer to manage the herd, their reproduction and their growth.

The social organisation of cattle is characterised by dominance-subordination relationships and by preferential relationships. These two types of social relationships are expressed by specific behaviours and postures : dominance relationships is expressed throughout agonistic (offensive and defensive) interactions whereas preferential relationships are expressed throughout positive interactions such as mutual grooming. Under normal conditions of permanent group, the dominance relationships are stable and help to resolve conflicts between animals caused by the proximity. The preferential relationships,, essentially developed between calves during ontogeny, are responsible for the cohesion of the group and help to attenuate social tensions.

Modern husbandry practices impose constraints to the environment of cattle including disturbances of their social environment, which can induce stress and reduce their production and their welfare. The expression of the dominance relationships can be exacerbated by farming conditions that lead to negative influences on the subordinates. A better knowledge of social relationships can generate specific tools to alleviate problems due to social tension by insuring stability among the dominance relationships and by increasing preferential relationships. In addition, a better management of the relationships among the group should also provide useful means for increasing the adaptation of animals to their non-social environment through buffering effects (i.e., stress-reducing effect of peers) and social facilitations (e.g., leadership and social learning). A better respect of the social needs and the social abilities of cattle, ultimately, will help to ensure not only optimal production but also to maximise animal welfare.

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