Fresh-Cow Behavior May Signal Metritis

Metritis is common in the days after calving and can reduce milk production and reproductive performance in fresh cows. Early identification of animals with metritis may improve the welfare of affected dairy cows and the economic viability of the farm.

Our team at the University of British Columbia recently conducted two studies evaluating fresh-cow behavior and how it may be indicative of the early stages of metritis.

The first study looked at first-calf heifers and their behavioral response to metritis. Isolation from the group is a common behavior when animals are ill. Although most barns do not have designated areas where cows can self-isolate, sick animals may be able to use the stalls themselves to seek refuge from the rest of the group.

First-lactation cows are smaller than multiparous cows and thus able to fit into free stalls more easily while standing on all four feet. In the study, first-lactation cows were commingled with multiparous cows for the first 21 days in milk and checked for metritis every three days. Their behavior was monitored via 24-hour video surveillance and was scored as (1) standing with four feet in the stalls; (2) standing with two feet in the stalls (perching); and (3) lying in the stalls. The data included behavior of eight sick heifers during the three days before they were diagnosed with metritis and was compared to data from eight healthy heifers.

We found that heifers with metritis spent about 103 minutes standing with four feet in the stall, while healthy heifers spent approximately 11 minutes in those three days before diagnosis. No difference was observed for perching or lying behavior between the two groups.

In the second study, we looked at changes in feeding behavior as an indicator of metritis. Twelve multiparous cows and 21 first-calf heifers were diagnosed with metritis on day six after calving, and their feeding behavior was compared to that of 49 healthy first-calf heifers and 96 multiparous cows.

In the five days leading up to clinical diagnosis, the heifers with metritis ate less, spent less time eating and made fewer daily visits to the feed bin compared to their healthy, first-calf counterparts. No difference was found between multiparous cows with and without metritis in feeding rate or number of meals per day, but cows with metritis were more likely than their healthy herd mates to be replaced at the feeder in competitive feeding situations.

These studies lead us to conclude:  

(1)    Because isolation from the herd is a sign of cow discomfort, stall isolation and prolonged standing in the stall could be indicators of the onset of metritis, particularly in first-calf heifers.

(2)    Cows at risk for metritis can be identified by changes in feeding and social behavior in the days before clinical onset of the disease.

(3)    Data from activity-monitoring systems and automated-feeding systems may be useful in early identification and care of these at-risk animals.