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Changes in the group associations of free-ranging beef cows at calving
Dyadic association between individuals forms the basis of group structures for herding animals. Group associations and social bonds are dynamic and can result in the establishment of new subgroups. The onset of parturition and the introduction of an offspring create a social change for a mother that is part of a herd. There is a need to nurture the young, develop and maintain a strong maternal bond, and build or maintain social networks within the larger herd. The present study explored associations within a herd of cattle that included pregnant cows and cows with calves (maternal cows). Group dynamics were determined by daily observations of group associations over an 11-week period. During the period, some pregnant cows calved and it was possible to quantify their associations before and post-calving. The associations between individual cows were quantified using a half-weight index (HWI). The HWI data for the maternal and pregnant class of cows were compared. The overall HWI data and the individual class data (pregnant or maternal) were tested against a random model, using data that were generated using permutation methods. There were significant differences in the associations of the pregnant and maternal cows; the maternal cows had stronger associations with other maternal cows while the pregnant cows showed evidence of weaker associations with other pregnant cows and the maternal cows. As pregnant cows calved, they developed stronger associations with other maternal cows. The present study provided evidence that pregnant cows prefer to maintain a degree of isolation, but strengthen their social bonds with other mothers as they enter a maternal phase.