Pen size and parity effects on maternal behaviour of Small-Tail Han sheep

S-J Lv, Y Yang, CM Dwyer, F-K Li

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The aim of this experiment was to study the effects of pen size and parity on maternal behaviour of twin-bearing Small-Tail Han ewes. A total of 24 ewes were allocated to a 2 × 2 design (six per pen), with parity (primiparous or multiparous) and pen size (large: 6.0 × 3.0 m; small: 6.0 × 1.5 m) as main effects at Linyi University, Shandong Province, China. Behaviour was observed from after parturition until weaning. All ewes were observed for 6 h every 5 days from 0700 to1000 h and from 1400 to 1700 h. Continuous focal animal sampling was used to quantify the duration of maternal behaviours: sucking, grooming and following as well as the frequency of udder accepting, udder refusing and low-pitched bleating. Oestradiol and cortisol concentrations in the faeces (collected in the morning every 5 days) were detected using EIA kits. All lambs were weighed 24 h after parturition and again at weaning at 35 days of age. The small pen size significantly reduced following ( P<0.005), grooming ( P<0.001) and suckling durations ( P<0.05), as well as the frequency of udder refusals ( P<0.001). However, there was a significant interaction with ewe parity, with decreased grooming and suckling in the small pen largely seen in the multiparous ewes ( P<0.001). Independent of pen size, multiparous ewes accepted more sucking attempts by their lambs ( P<0.05) and made more low-pitched bleats than primiparous ewes ( P<0.001). Multiparous ewes had higher faecal oestradiol concentrations than primiparous ewes ( P<0.001), and ewes in small pens had higher faecal cortisol levels compared with ewes in larger pens ( P<0.001). As lambs increased in age, the duration of maternal grooming, following and suckling as well as frequency of udder acceptance and lowpitched bleating all declined, and the frequency of udder refusing increased ( P<0.001 for all). Ewe parity, but not pen size, affected lamb weight gain during the period of observation ( P<0.001). This is the first study to show that pen size, interacting with parity, can affect the expression of maternal behaviour in sheep during lactation. The study is also the first to report on the maternal behaviour of Chinese native sheep breeds (Small-Tail Han sheep), with implications for the production of sheep in China.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1195 - 1202
Number of pages8
Issue number7
Publication statusPrint publication - 2015

Bibliographical note



  • Cortisol
  • Maternal behaviour
  • Parity
  • Pen size
  • Small-Tail Han sheep


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