Scientists in Britain have launched the first study of how dairy cows interact with each other, in the hope of finding ways of making them happier and more productive.
"The importance of group stability for food production animals has long been recognised," said Dr Darren Croft of the University of Exeter's Animal Behaviour Research Group in Psychology.
"We hope that our research will provide important insight leading to happier, healthier dairy cows and a better result for farmers."
The study is starting as dairy farmers mount a campaign to persuade supermarkets and other wholesale customers to pay higher prices for milk, saying that the current prices do not cover their costs.
The dairy industry is worth £8 billion a year to the UK economy, according to the university, and the study aims to provide information and guidance which will benefit cattle farmers, policy makers and ultimately the consumer.
The three-year research programme, to be carried out on farms in south west England, is funded by Defra and DairyCo, a not-for-profit organisation representing dairy farmers.
Cows are social animals, which form important group structures and the addition or removal of animals from an established group can alter its dynamics, the university says. Various factors are taken into consideration when a farmer decides how to group the cows as part of the overall management plan for the entire herd.
Using hi-tech proximity collars to record social interactions electronically, the university team is developing the concept within an automatically milked herd at Orway Porch Farm, Cullompton, Devon.
This is enabling the team to map social interactions and, in combination with observational studies, determine how the nature of those relationships may influence their health status and productivity.
Once this preliminary study has been completed later this year, four additional farms which reflect a range of management systems and group sizes will be recruited to broaden the scope of the project, the University of Exeter said.