Effects of group size on rate of learning food locations by cattle

By Taoufik Ksiksi and Emilio A. Laca
ODI-Pastoral Development Network ; Livestock: Coping with Drought

ABSTRACT

©FAO-G. Diana The rate at which grazing animals learn the location of preferred food patches is important from two standpoints. First, animals that learn fast are more efficient foragers as individuals. Second, they may impose more uneven grazing distributions with potential reductions in grazing capacity. However, when food is scarce, e.g. arid and semiarid environment, grazing efficiency becomes the ability to revisit preferred food locations. As a result, the energy spent searching for food would be minimized. We tested if animals trained in groups learn food locations faster than those trained as individuals. Steers were trained to find 10 trays with food in a grid of 64 trays. The steers were trained in groups or as individuals in three 8-minute sessions on days 1, 3, 5, and 7 of the experiment. All steers were tested individually on days 2, 4, 6, and 8. We recorded the search path and the trays visited. No significant differences were found between treatments in any of the variables measured. This suggested that social interactions did not have a net effect on the ability of animals to find and learn location of food patches. Steers in both treatments (individual and group training) learned the locations of food over time. Covariance analysis showed that there was no significant interaction between days of experience and treatment. In other words, steers in both treatments did perform similarly over time. Steers in group treatment, however, did better than expected by chance after 5 days and those in solitary treatment after 7 days. This may suggest that individuals within a group of animals rely on the information available from other members, hence a decrease in energy spent for feed searching. In drought and when food is scarce, cattle may increase their efficiency by minimizing energy expenditure.

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