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Short communication: Genetic variation in choice consistency for cows accessing automatic milking units

Løvendahl, Peter, Sørensen, Lars Peter, Bjerring, Martin, Lassen, Jan
Journal of dairy science 2016 v.99 no.12 pp. 9857-9863
dairy cows, genetic background, genetic variation, herds, heritability, late lactation, milk, milking, parity (reproduction), phenotype, statistical models
Dairy cows milked in automatic milking systems (AMS) with more than 1 milking box may, as individuals, have a preference for specific milking boxes if allowed free choice. Estimates of quantitative genetic variation in behavioral traits of farmed animals have previously been reported, with estimates of heritability ranging widely. However, for the consistency of choice in dairy cows, almost no published estimates of heritability exist. The hypothesis for this study was that choice consistency is partly under additive genetic control and partly controlled by permanent environmental (animal) effects. The aims of this study were to obtain estimates of genetic and phenotypic parameters for choice consistency in dairy cows milked in AMS herds. Data were obtained from 5 commercial Danish herds (I–V) with 2 AMS milking boxes (A, B). Milking data were only from milkings where both the present and the previous milkings were coded as completed. This filter was used to fulfill a criterion of free-choice situation (713,772 milkings, 1,231 cows). The lactation was divided into 20 segments covering 15d each, from 5 to 305d in milk. Choice consistency scores were obtained as the fraction of milkings without change of box [i.e., 1.0 – µ(box change)] for each segment. Data were analyzed for one part of lactation at a time using a linear mixed model for first-parity cows alone and for all parities jointly. Choice consistency was found to be only weakly heritable (heritability=0.02 to 0.14) in first as well as in later parities, and having intermediate repeatability (repeatability coefficients=0.27 to 0.56). Heritability was especially low at early and late lactation states. These results indicate that consistency, which is itself an indication of repeated similar choices, is also repeatable as a trait observed over longer time periods. However, the genetic background seems to play a smaller role compared with that of the permanent animal effects, indicating that consistency could also be a learned behavior. We concluded that consistency in choices are quantifiable, but only under weak genetic control.