Exploring social dynamics in cattle using a social networks approach

  • Francesca E P Johansen

Student thesis: Master's ThesisMaster of Science by Research (MScR)


Understanding complex social systems requires interactions to be studied as part of a network, not simply at the individual or dyadic scale. Domestic cattle are typically group-housed, thus there existsextensive research on their social patterns. Currently, the farming industry is pursuing information on optimal social conditions for cattle, and to meet that demand, it is necessary to gain a clear understanding of their social dynamics. Few studies have explored the social patterns of domestic cattle as part of a network and/or with a focus on cow-calf dynamics. Here, (i) the effectiveness of a positioning system was tested within a dairy cow barn, and (ii) social network analysis was utilised to quantify social dynamics in a naturally weaning beef herd. The positioning system produced datasuitable for social network construction. Related beef cattle had more social connections to other related cattle than unrelated cattle did to other unrelated cattle (p=0.00002), and the focal cattle preferred related nearest-neighbours over unrelated nearest-neighbours (p<0.00). The social network of a related group of cattle remained stable over time as the weaning period approached (p=0.007), and there was no difference between the cow-calf associations before and after weaning (p=0.49). The current study shows that a positioning system proved effective in quantifying some aspects of social behaviour in dairy cows, that beef cattle preferentially associate with related animals over unrelated animals when allowed free access to both, that the study animals showed consistent social attachments, and that the calves in the group were important for the social network structure. The necessity of abrupt weaning in calves is challenged due to the strong preference displayed between related animals in the current study. The present study had limitations, most notably technical challenges and limited sample sizes, meaning that the implications of the study must be treated with caution.
Date of Award24 Jun 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorSuzanne D E Held (Supervisor) & Gina Caplen (Supervisor)

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