Can stroking during milking decrease avoidance distances of cows towards humans?
This study investigated whether short-time stroking of loose-housed dairy cows in the daily farm routine could improve the cow-human relationship and consequently decrease avoidance distances, and whether this effect was persistent. Thirty-one cows (from two different breeds: Holstein
Friesian and German Red Pied) received either a treatment (STROKING; n = 15) or no treatment (CONTROL; n = 16). In the STROKING group, each animal was stroked during morning and evening milking by an unfamiliar individual (experimenter) for 3 min over a 5-day period (Treatment 1) and again,
4 weeks later, over a 3.5-day period (Treatment 2). CONTROL animals could observe the experimenter during milking. Before and after treatment, the experimenter recorded the avoidance distances of cows (distance of first withdrawal when approached from the front) at the feeding place (AVOIDfeed)
and in the barn (AVOIDbarn). Prior to Treatment 1, CONTROL and STROKING animals did not differ in AVOIDfeed or in AVOIDbarn. After Treatment 1, AVOIDfeed was significantly lower in STROKING animals compared to CONTROL animals. With regard to AVOIDbarn, no significant difference was found between
STROKING animals and CONTROL animals after Treatment 1. After 4 weeks, before Treatment 2, CONTROL and STROKING animals did not differ significantly anymore in AVOIDfeed. After Treatment 2, AVOIDfeed was again significantly lower in STROKING animals than in CONTROL animals. Also, in the barn,
(AVOIDbarn), STROKING animals avoided the experimenter less than CONTROL animals after Treatment 2. In terms of within-group evolution of avoidance distances, AVOIDfeed of CONTROL animals did not decrease in the course of the two treatments. Only after Treatment 2 were avoidance distances
at the feeding place of STROKING animals significantly lower than initial avoidance distances. AVOIDbarn of CONTROL animals decreased after Treatment 1 but did not decrease significantly after Treatment 2. AVOIDbarn of STROKING animals decreased significantly after Treatment 1 and again after
Treatment 2. It is suggested that short-time stroking during milking can affect the responses of cows to humans positively, although our results question the amount of contact necessary: even more contact might be required for lasting effects.