Better understanding of how animals regulate their intake may be gained by analysis of feeding behaviour. This is often recorded in terms of feeding events, e.g. visits to feeders, which can be clustered into meals. This enables calculation of the probability of animals starting a meal in relation to time since the last meal, which is thought to give insight into food intake regulation. Starting probabilities are often calculated with pooled data but recent work suggests that pooling may strongly affect conclusions.
In this study we analysed feeding behaviour of cows to investigate how previous conclusions about feeding behaviour may have been affected by pooling. Using parameters derived from experimental data, we constructed simulation models to further explore under what circumstances pooling, either across day and night or across individuals, could affect the interpretation of starting probabilities. Data were simulated to explore the consequences of pooling as either the proportion of meals occurring during the day or the individual variation in their mean number of meals per 24 h changed. Simulation allowed us to extend the analysis of the consequences of pooling for the interpretation of starting probabilities.
Analysis of experimental data, collected with 16 dairy cows, showed that they ate a mean of six meals per 24 h. Individual variation resulted in a proportional CV of the individual mean number of meals per 24 h of 0·14. Cows ate a mean proportion of 0·59 of their meals during the day. Analysis of experimental data suggested that pooling, conducted in previous studies, has probably led to a quantitative underestimation of the increase in starting probability with time since the last meal but not a qualitative misinterpretation of the direction of change in the starting probability.
Simulation studies showed that pooling had no serious consequences when the mean number of meals per 24 h, or the variation about this mean, was low. However, as the number of meals per 24 h and variation increased, pooling led to conclusions that may wholly misrepresent both magnitude and direction of the change in starting probabilities calculated separately for the individuals or for day and night. This may explain why the results of some published studies seem not to agree with biological principles of food intake regulation.