Field Notes: Calves, collars and cuteness

You’d think that looking at baby animals all day would be the perfect job, but it certainly comes with some unique challenges…


I study abnormal behaviors in dairy cattle (for more info on what it’s like to do research at the Dairy, check out my previous field notes piece here), which we see performed across all ages and breeds on the UC Davis farm. Specifically, we are looking at the abnormal behaviors that they do with their mouths, called tongue rolling and non-nutritive manipulation. However, there has been limited research on the development of these behaviors from birth into adulthood for calves and heifers (aka cows who haven’t given birth yet). 

In order to investigate this, I needed to design a study where we could observe these behaviors across many months for each animal. Thus, we watched 30 calves each for 5 months (!), spanning from April to December of 2022. This required a team of 20 undergraduate students, approximately 8,000 data sheets, and a can-do attitude. 

One of the first challenges for this project was that after calves stop drinking milk, they get moved into groups (Figure 1). This makes it really tricky to easily see each individual and what they are doing (especially when we are looking at their mouths). 

Figure 1: Jersey (the brown ones) and Holstein (the black and white ones) heifers sit on their soft bedding
Photo source: Isabelle McDonald-Gilmartin

One way that we got around the challenge of finding individuals in large groups was by putting collars on the individuals of interest to facilitate behavioral observations. This consisted of befriending each animal with lots of neck scratches, until we could safely put a colorful green or purple collar on them (Figure 2). Fitting the collars was particularly challenging on rainy days, when we had to slide through the sludgy pens to find the right heifers to put them on (imagine ice skating but dirty and stinky).

Figure 2: Two young heifers toting their fashionable purple collars
Photo source: Isabelle McDonald-Gilmartin

Another challenge we faced is that heifers are very curious and pushy, often trying to eat our coveralls, gloves, or any other available body part. This innate curiosity makes it difficult to work with other cattle in the pen, as the surrounding ones will come up and try to investigate you as closely as possible (Figure 3). This trait can be beneficial, if the curious one is next in line for receiving her collar, but less helpful when it’s the same hyper heifer vying for some attention!

Figure 3: A curious calf sneaking in to investigate
Photo source: Isabelle McDonald-Gilmartin

In addition to the animals being a handful, the environment also presents a number of obstacles when completing this type of study. When we began, the average temperature was a pleasant 60-70℉, which steadily increased to a peak of 115℉ in September, and dropping down to the 30s by December (Figure 4). Since our study design required live observations of these animals, observers were outside in all ranges of temperatures, proving to be difficult at times. Luckily, ample ice-water, shade, and hand-warmers were available to assure that our observers were as comfortable as possible. 

Figure 4: The variation of temperature in Davis, CA in 2022.
Source: Sacramento International Airport

While combating the extreme temperatures, we also needed to stay close enough to the animals to be able to see their mouths, but far enough away so as to not distract them or affect their behaviors. This consisted of wedging our camping chairs into strange and tiny spots all across the farm to gain good vantage points. 

The final challenge in this study was maybe an obvious one —  the animals are so cute that sometimes you can forget what you’re doing or why you’re there, and instead of focusing on the research you might instead find yourself simply basking in their adorableness! (Figure 5).

Figure 5: A newborn Holstein calf
Photo source: Isabelle McDonald-Gilmartin

While this study took an inordinate amount of work scheduling observations, managing animals, and overcoming obstacles, we collected some fascinating data, which we are looking forward to sharing in the coming months. We anticipate finding some interesting results about how the behaviors fluctuate with age, and if individuals vary across time. Special thanks to my awesome undergraduate team for working hard and making it fun!

Isabelle is a 3rd year PhD candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate at UC Davis. She is studying the abnormal repetitive behaviors that dairy cattle perform, how they develop, and how they may be related to learning. She is also interested in exploring the relationship between behavior and animal welfare.

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