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Assessing cattle motivation for access to pasture or feedlot environments

There was a public perception that cattle welfare was reduced under intensive feedlot finishing due to the issue of confinement. A study was conducted to examine cattle perception of the feedlot environment by assessing motivation to access either a feedlot or a pasture environment. Twenty-eight 12-month-old Angus steers (264 - 2.4 kg body weight, mean - SEM) were allocated to 2 groups (n=10 per group). A Y-maze testing facility was constructed consisting of two Y-mazes attached to either pasture or a feedlot. Cattle underwent four stages of Y-maze testing in their groups. 

In stage 1, cattle spent 7 days in the feedlot where they were fed a full daily ration split into two feeding times at 08:30h and again at 16:00h daily. Then they were tested in the same Y-maze twice daily (at 08:30h and 16:00h) for 10 consecutive days. In stage 2, cattle were confined to the feedlot for 4 weeks where they were fed twice daily. Next, they were tested in the same Y-maze twice daily for 5 consecutive days. In stage 3, to determine the influence of maze side on preference, cattle were trained to learn the direction of the alternate Y-maze and were tested twice daily for 6 consecutive days. Stage 4 examined the influence of removing the feed reward by testing once per day at 12:00h without the feed reward for 10 consecutive days and from alternating mazes. 

In all the Y-maze tests, once an animal had made a choice in the maze, they were confined to the environment they chose (feedlot or pasture) until the next time of testing, thereby imposing a cost on their choice. Preference for choosing the feedlot was tested by comparing the mean group observed choice to random chance (50%). The results show that when a feed reward coincided with the time of Y-maze testing, cattle showed a preference for the feedlot environment (stages 1 and 2). The time of day did not influence feedlot choice in the maze when there was a cost imposed on the choice. In stage 4, when the feed reward was removed, cattle showed a preference for the feedlot on days 2, 3 and 4 and there was no preference observed for the remaining 6 days. 

The study indicated that cattle showed a preference for the feedlot when testing coincided with feeding and that they were willing to pay the cost of their choice where they were then unable to access the pasture environment.


Title Size Date published
1.0MB 01/10/2014


Contract No. Title Start date End date Funding type
Assessing cattle motivation for access to pasture or feedlot environments
10/05/2012 31/12/2013
Feed choices: Cattle preference for feedlot or pasture environments.
01/05/2009 02/08/2011

This page was last updated on 31/07/2018

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