Livestock Research for Rural Development 9 (4) 1997

Citation of this paper

Cattle behaviour as an indicator of animal welfare in the dairy systems of Iztapalapa, Mexico City


H Losada, J Vieyra, J Rivera, H Martínez, R Pealing*, J Cortés and L Arias

Animal Production Systems Area. Departament of Biology of Reproduction. Division of Biological and Health Sciences, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Iztapalapa. Av. Michoacán y la Purisíma. Col. Vicentina.
Iztapalpa. CP 09340. México DF (E-mail:

* Researcher from UK sponsored by the interchange CONACYT-British Council.


A study regarding the use of physical space and the social behaviour of cows was carried out in five stables in Iztapalapa, in order to evaluate animal welfare within the concept of sustainability. The distribution of space demonstrated that the living quarters of the family occupied 20% of the total surface area, while the space per head of cattle was 9.6m. Aggressive behaviour (ie: fighting, pushing and bumping) prevailed over social behaviour (ie: licking), with average attitude values (times observed in the activity during period of 6 consecutive days) of 114 for aggressive behaviour and 56.0 for social behaviour. During the period of observation (6 days), aggressive behaviour consistently dominated over social behaviour. The results obtained from this study are discussed within the context of the need to redefine the concept of sustainablility within the limits imposed by the urban agriculture of the large metropolises and the competition for land.

Key words: Mexico, dairy cattle, animal welfare, behaviour


Milk production from stable-reared cows is the method of production that is favoured within the urbanised zones of Mexico City, typified by the local systems in the east of the city such as Iztapalapa. This delegation has the highest population density of the Federal District, with a value of approximately 17,658 inhabitants/km^2 (INEGI 1995), thus putting high pressures on land, and at the same time forcing an intensification of production processes, as has previously been described by Losada et al (1996). Previous observations ( Losada et al 1992;Cortes and Losada 1993) have shown that dairy herds are relatively large, with an average of 27 animals. This suggests to us the possible existence of competitive relationships resulting from high densities, which could be linked to the issue of animal welfare.

The objective of this work was to study the behaviour of cows kept within the stables of Iztapalapa.



This study on animal behaviour was carried out in two phases. The first involved the measuring of the total surface area of four production units, including the distribution of living quarters and the different installations used in animal production. The second phase consisted of a sample observation in one of the four stables, selected at random, in which the level of aggressiveness (ie fighting, bumping and pushing) of each animal in the stall (9 x 40m; the equivalent of 10.6m/animal) was measured following the procedure described by Dickson et al (1967). In the same way, the demonstration of social behaviour (ie: licking) was also assessed.

The general features of the stable were on average: a total of 33 animals; two milkings a day; and a feeding regime based on the use of lettuce, maize leaves and cabbage obtained from the Metropolitan Food Supply Depot. Observations of animal behaviour were made during a period of four hours in the morning (9:00 - 13:00 hr) every day over a period of six consecutive days. The values obtained were analysed by means of an Excel package, and expressed in measures of the mean of the main trend and percentage frequency, in accordance with conventional procedures (Daniels 1984).


The mean distribution of space within the four studied units is presented in table 1. As can be seen, the family house represented 20% of the total surface area, while the resting area (a space used for fastening the cows to the feeding troughs) represented 16%. Using the average number of cows in production, the space per capita was 9.6m (including the resting and the manoeuvring/handling area). Although the space occupied by the feeding troughs (40m) when related to the number of cows theoretically resulted in an additional 2.3m/animal, in reality thie said surface area epresented the availability of food offered to the cows (as opposed to a separate installation), and for this reason was not included within the aforementioned value per animal.

The average values reported in this study for aggressive and social behaviour are presented in table 2.

The presence of aggressive behaviour prevailed 100% over that of sociability, which suggested that the cows are kept in a state of permanent alertness This trend persisted throughout the six days of the observation period (see table 3).


Of the results obtained from the current experiment, two aspects are of particular interest - the changes in the behaviour of the cows caused by spatial restrictions, and the possible effects that the change in behaviour might introduce to the issue of animal welfare within existing definitions of sustainability.

The existing competition for use of physical space in the urban environment where these systems of milk production are carried out, confirmed our hypothesis that it is restriction (ie: lack of space) which promotes the development of aggressive behaviour in the cows. This in turn has implications such as a negative effect on overall animal production (including milk production). Although the international literature available on the theme of social behaviour (ethnology)has clearly defined it from the point of view of its physiological characteristics and the biochemical changes induced in the hormonal mechanisms through hypothermic regulation (Conner et al1971), the information about the possible effects of aggressiveness focusing on production levels and recommended measures for its reduction or alleviation in ruminants is limited (Nakanishi et al 1993). The reason for this absence of information possibly originates from the relative importance attached to this phenomenon in respect to male bovines in most research, which in the case of females has been considered as a secondary feature.

The evidence obtained from the current experiment showed that the behaviour of the cows was caused by an interaction between patterns of sociability and aggressiveness. According to the current available literature aggressive behaviour has been described as a pattern that maintains the rankings of natural dominance of animal communities, so much so that social behaviour has been described as an expression of a non-aggressive interaction. Consequently, the development of aggressive behaviour 'disappears' when the rankings of dominance are threatened/broken-down. In this situation, the role of per capita space is considered as one of the factors which eliminates aggressiveness. According to the reported data from Japanese researchers (Nakanishi et al 1992), the amount of space per animal at which the animal ceases being in a state of 'alertness' is approximately 40m. This, in comparison with the 10m available to the cows in this current study, could explain the persistence of aggressive behaviour over social. The possible effect of this behaviour on milk production was not clearly identified and needs to be the subject of further research.

The issue of animal welfare has been raised by various researchers (Fraser and Broom 1990), who see it as a necessary requirement in definitions of sustainabilty and forms of production that involve the utilisation of domesticated species. The fact that a state of permanent alertness predominates in the cows reared in urban production systems could be considered as one of the factors that might limit its acceptance as a model of sustainable milk production for the urban environment of Mexico City. Nevertheless, it is important to mention that the concept of sustainability as such, is a proposal that has been formulated, in the main, for the rural context, where physical space is not necessarily a limiting factor. Consequently, we consider that in the case of the large urban centres, sustainability has not been clearly defined and as a result, the criteria to evaluate urban production systems will not necessarily follow the same pattern as that of the rural situation. An example of this would be the presence of air pollution derived from emissions from the internal combustion engine, which, at least in the medium term, will continue to be the principal mode of urban transport. In the same way, it is clear that the issue of urban animal welfare must be reconsidered within the context of urban social conditions. To suggest that the producer in Iztapalapa - who has developed the system of production based on the use of organic rejects , for the production of milk in a physical space shared with the living quarters - should increase the space available to his animals from 309m (the current available space) to 1425m (equivalent to a 400% increase) for the comfort of his cows, is not viable, particularly in view of the inflated land prices and high population densities of the area.

A possible alternative, proposed by some commentators preoccupied by the issue of animal welfare within the large urban centres (Sánchez 1982 ), is that of relocating the systems of production to the environs of the city, which would allow, among other things, an incresed availability of space, thus reducing to the utmost the state of 'alertness' in cows maintained in intensive systems. It should be mentioned, however, that the aforementioned proposal has been shown to generate more problems that solutions. At the beginning of the 1970s, the immeasurable urban growth in the south of the city was responsible for the displacement of an important sector of mechanised dairies. These were relocated in a neighbouring village (Tizayuca) with the aim that it should be the metropolis's main supply centre for milk and other dairy products. Twenty years later, the majority of the producers have abandoned their dairy activities in the light of new problems associated with the reduced availability of forage, the growing need for external inputs, increased prices of essential inputs such as feed, problems of marketing linked to transport and distribution difficulties, and finally, environmental problems caused by the accumulation of excreta. A similar example occurred at the beginning of this decade, in the area of Xochimilco. Here small dairy producers were removed from their original location, known as "The Dairy Milk Parlour of Xochimilco". According to our research, the majority of the producers encountered problems similar to those evidenced in Tizayuca (Losada et al 1994).

The difficulties in finding an apt solution regarding the use of animals within the metropolis would appear to confirm our original argument that the concept of urban sustainablility in terns of animal welfare must be redefined. The situation would seem to justify the intensification of the use of physical space, which we, in part, support. It is clear, however, that the state of alertness of the cows induced by the restriction of space, is a factor that will undoubtedly effect the productive behaviour of the animals, and which could be considered as a limiting factor in terms of economic sustainability.

A possible solution to this problem of bovine behaviour is the use of 'diversors', which would promote displacement behaviour or early socialisation (Dantzer and Mormede 1983; Craig and Muir 1993). Such techniques have been tested in other domesticated species, principally pigs and poultry, and have been shown to reduce dramatically chronic stress, as well as the pecking and biting of tails and ears. The design and use of 'diversors' for cows is a subject for future research.



The authors wish to thank the authorities of the Universidad Autónoma Metropollitana (Autonomous Metropolitan University) for the facilities given to the research and the producers of milk from the stables in Iztapalapa for their collaboration.



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Received 1 June 1997

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