Livestock Research for Rural Development 12 (2) 2000

Citation of this paper

Smallholder dairy cattle production in Xochimilco in the Southeast of Mexico City:
Effect of herdsmen on spatial behaviour
of  cattle during restricted grazing

J Vieyra, H Losada, R Soriano, J Cortés and L Arias

Animal Production Systems Area. Department of Biology of Reproduction. Division of Biological and Health Sciences, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Iztapalapa. Av. Michoacán y la Purisíma. Col. Vicentina. Iztapalapa. C.P. 09340. México D.F.


This study measured the space occupied, effective grazing time and displays of aggressive and sociable behaviour of a herd of dairy cattle in Xochimilco, a sub-urban zone of Mexico City during 4 hours of grazing per day, under the supervision of a different herdsman for each of four consecutive days. No significant differences in space or effective grazing time were found with the different herdsmen. Expressions of both aggressiveness and sociability were found to be greater on days 2 and  4 than 1 and 3. A positive correlation was found between aggressive and sociable acts, indicating that if there is an effect of the herdsman, this is on the animals' overall state of animation, rather than on producing one of the two types of behaviour. These behaviours were much less common than those found previously among stabled cattle in urban conditions. The low effective grazing times are discussed in terms of the preference of herdsmen for 'walker' cattle, and the quality of available pasture.

Key words: Urban agriculture, welfare, dairying


Dairy cattle behaviour may be used as a guide to animal welfare (Fraser and Broom 1992) and has been associated with restricted physical space, as found in the dairy production systems of the urban zones of Mexico City (Losada et al 1997). In the sub-urban space of Xochimilco, this degree of restriction does not exist, because there are wide areas in which dairy cattle can graze, such as areas destined for agriculture, or not presently in production, which have developed native or introduced pasture cover. 

Some authors have suggested the links between man and animal that may have an effect on livestock behaviour (Dantzer and Mormede 1983;  Hemsworth et al 1993, 1995, Hemsworth and Colliman 1995). In view of the different conditions in the sub-urban as opposed to urban environment, the objective of the research  described here was to study the effect of the herdsman on the effective grazing time, space used, and aggressive or sociable behaviour shown by a dairy cattle herd in Xochimilco when under the supervision of 4 different herdsmen.


Animals and management

The cattle were a herd of the Holstein breed, consisting of 4 bulls and 15 cows, of which 13 were in various stages of lactation and the remainder dry. The cattle were maintained in the backyards of four houses, and all given unlimited grazing access for 4 hours in the morning (8.30am - 12.30pm) following the first milking . The feeding of the animals in the stable was based on maize, sun-dried lucerne, maize stubble and fruit wastes, administered restrictively. Cows in production were milked twice a day (7.30am and 12.30pm). Average daily milk production per cow was 12 litres. The grazing area was a green space including canal borders; edges of cropped fields and undefined spaces with vegetative cover. The species present were Penisetum clandestinum (kikuyo), Typha dominguensis (tule), Trifolium spp (clover), Brassica campestris L. (wild turnip), Amaranthus hybridus L. (amaranto), and Chenopodium album L. (quelite). It took approximately 30 minutes for the herd to walk from the stables to the pasture, a distance of about 2km. Animals were guided by 4 herdsmen, only one of them remaining with the animals during grazing, and the rest returning to assist in guiding the animals back to the stables.

Preparation of the herd and herdsmen prior to the period of study

In the seven days prior to carrying out the observation of cattle grazing behaviour, each herdsman was visited at their home/at their stable for 3 consecutive days in order to familiarise the researchers with their everyday activities, and to ensure that the routine as studied did not vary from the usual. In the subsequent 4 days, the researchers were introduced to the herd so that their presence during the observation stage did not constitute a new element, which might influence the behaviour of the cattle.

Observation of behaviour and variables used

The behavioural study was carried out over a 4 hours period for each of 4 consecutive days, with a different herdsman on each occasion. In the area where cattle were grazed, a canal and a wire barrier formed the northern and southern limits respectively; there being a 9m separation between the two. The were no limits to the east or west, such that the area occupied by the herd could be measured by recording the separation of furthest members along the east-west axis. During the four hour period, the number of aggressive (feints or butts) and sociable (licks) acts were recorded for each cow, as well as the time actually spent grazing. A portable video recording was made of the herd for 5 minutes every 30 minutes during the study, and the film later used to check the direct observations. The results obtained for space occupied, effective grazing time, and for social and aggressive behaviour over the four days of study were analysed using ANOVA.


Effect of different herdsmen on grazing space

The space occupied by the dairy herds while grazing throughout the day, under the supervision of different herdsmen each day, is presented in table 1.

Table 1: Mean space occupied (m2) by the herd during grazing on consecutive days with the supervision of different herdsmen
Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4
Hour 1 153 135 189 675
Hour 2 132 270 297 126
Hour 3 837 365 351 432
Hour 4 189 459 412 324
Total 328 307 312 389

Statistical analysis showed no significant differences in space occupied each day by the herd. The area available per animal for grazing during the study is shown in Table 2.

Table 2:  Mean values of space (m2) per animal during the grazing period studied
Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4
Hour 1 8.05 7.10 9.94 35.5
Hour 2 6.94 14.2 15.6 6.63
Hour 3 44.0 19.2 18.4 22.7
Hour 4 9.94 24.1 21.6 17.0

Analysis of variance showed no significant differences due to hour or herdsmen (day). The minimum space per animal was 7m2, the maximum 44m2, and the mean 17m2 per cow. Table 3 shows effective grazing time of the dairy herd each day.

Table 3: The effective grazing time (hours) of the dairy herd during each day of the period of study.
Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4
Effective time of grazing 3.03 2.30 2.05 2.21

Whilst there were no significant differences between the grazing times each day of the study, all are noticeably below the potential period of 4 hours during which the animals are allowed unrestricted access to pasture.

Regarding the aggressive and social behaviour during grazing, the results (table 4) showed that there were significant differences in sociable and aggressive behaviours on different days (with different herdsmen). Animals managed by herdsmen 2 and 4 showed greater expression of both aggressive and sociable behaviour than with herders 1 and 3. When aggressive and sociable behaviour values were examined independently of the herder and hour of grazing, correlation coefficients showed direct relationships between aggressive and sociable behaviours (r=0.65 and 0.63 for feints vs licks and butts vs licks). There was a slight negative correlation between the two aggressive behaviours (butts vs feints, r= -0.48).

Table 4: Number of aggressive (butts and feints) and sociable (licks) acts per animal per day during the four day observed grazing period
Days Feints Butts Licks SD*(feints) SD*(butts) SD*(licks)
1 0.787 0.630 0.078 1.127 0.808 0.269
2 1.486 0.907 0.472 1.371 1.289 0.408
3 0.736 0.618 0.157 0.991 1.075 0.488
4 1.341 1.091 0.391 1.543 1.583 0.918
* Standard deviation.


The results of the present study provide several factors worthy of discussion concerning the behaviour of cattle during grazing related to time of grazing, and the effect of the herdsman. The mean effective grazing time of the animals was 2.4 hours (144 minutes), although the animals had access to pasture for four hours (240 minutes). A similar phenomenon has been observed in other studies of dairy cattle on pasture (Erdman et al 1989) in which effective grazing time was considered to be a factor affecting the dry matter intake of the animals. During the interview with the cattle owners prior to the study, it was found that the herdsmen sought animals with a 'walking' characteristic, allowing them to use grazing as a management strategy and reducing production costs, and that if cattle of this type remain permanently stabled, they become depressed and have health problems. This 'walking' trait may have the effect of reducing the effective grazing time, and as a result dry matter intake. A second factor influencing the time and intake of the herd may be the quality of the pasture, which in this case was not grown especially for dairy cattle to graze, but was rather made up of local species suited to abandoned land. Since cows are known to feed more on high quality pasture than poor when given the choice (Waldo 1986), the species found in Xochimilco may not induce the cattle to graze for as much of the available time as possible.

Animal behaviour is an indicator, which may be used to test the wariness that the animal feels towards the herdsman. Display of aggressive and sociable behaviours was found to be significantly different under the supervision of different herdsmen, whilst the other variables considered (occupation of space and effective grazing time) showed no such significant variations. The correlation between aggressive and sociable acts may indicate that they are not clear indicators of welfare or distress, but more likely show a general state of animation. It is interesting to note that in a study of aggressive and sociable behaviours in dairy stables in Iztapalapa (Losada et al 1997), values of fights and licks per cow per day were 19 and 9 respectively, suggesting that the confined urban conditions give rise to a much more animated state amongst the cattle.


The authors would like to thank: the authorities of the Autonomous Metropolitan University for the use of the facilities;   Messrs P. Hernandez and G. Alonso for helping to collect the data;  Mr. R.Bennett for assistance with language;  and the dairy producers of Xochimilco for their co-operation.


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Received on 7 September 1999

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