three line graphs showing normal and abnormal activity levels over a 24-hour day for cows affected by lameness or mastitis or in heat
Average activity levels of healthy, not-in-heat cows (solid lines) and “affected” cows (dashed lines) over the course of a day. Lower activity levels correspond to more resting and higher activity levels to more eating and moving around. Data from 350 cows over 5 months show that circadian patterns differ between “normal” and “affected” cows. Figure is from Veissier et al. 2017 Journal of Dairy Science 100:3969–3974.

Sunrise, sunset. When to eat, when to sleep. Like people and plants (and microbes!), cows have a circadian pattern. Circadian rhythms are the physiological and behavioral changes that follow a predictable pattern over the course of a day.

In a recent study, the exact locations of 350 cows in a free-stall barn on a Danish dairy were tracked each second for 5 months using a real-time positioning system (GEA’s CowView). Cows were classified as resting (in a stall), feeding (at the feed bunk), or in alley (in the milking robot or otherwise not in a stall or eating). Each of these activities was weighted: resting was negative (-0.15), feeding was very positive (+0.34), and in alley was less positive (+0.12). Then these weights were applied to the number of hours each cow spent doing each activity, which resulted in an average activity level across the herd over the day (see solid lines in the figure for “normal” cows).

That cows have circadian rhythms, shaped by light-dark cycles and management activities (like stall cleaning), is no surprise. What is interesting, is that the researchers found that circadian patterns changed when a cow was feeling poorly (lameness or mastitis) or coming into heat (see dashed lines in the figure). Lame cows showed less overall activity level variation over the course of the day. Cows with mastitis showed higher activity during the day but lower activity into the evening.

What’s more interesting is that the shift in circadian pattern occurred 1 to 2 days before the farmer detected the abnormality. These results should be verified in other settings with additional diagnostic tools. However, monitoring circadian patterns of activity may serve as an early warning system for cows that may require additional attention.