UBC study shows dairy cows prefer pasture, reap health benefits from outdoor access

UBC study shows dairy cows prefer pasture, reap health benefits from outdoor access

With freshet season in full swing, Fraser Valley dairy farmers might be more concerned with keeping their cows dry than happy, but a new series of experiments conducted at the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre could contribute to changing attitudes about cow welfare.

It’s well known that humans can benefit from spending time outdoors, but did you know cows prefer time outside too?

UBC PhD student Anne-Marieke Smid’s study – Dairy cow preference for different types of outdoor access – tested the preference of 96 lactating Holstein cows for pasture versus an outdoor sand pack at nighttime. Using outdoor video cameras, the behaviour of the pregnant cows was recorded and evaluated over seven-night spans. For two nights, cows had access to just the barn and the sand pack, followed by two nights with access to the barn and the pasture. For three nights the cows could choose between the sand pack, the pasture and the barn.

The experiment ran at night because cows generally prefer to stay inside during the day – avoiding heat stress and solar radiation from the sun.

The overnight tests showed the cows preferred the pasture, spending more time in the 21,000-square-metre parcel of grassy land than the 144-square-metre sand pack, and opting for the pasture when given both options. When allowed free access to pasture during the night, the average cow spent 90 per cent of their time outside, compared with 44.4 per cent offered the same overnight access to the sand pack.

Cow-friendly hair dye helped UBC PhD student Anne-Marieke Smid keep track of cows during her study testing their preference to sand packs and pastures. (Submitted)

Smid says pasture access has a number of benefits, including the ability for cows to express natural behaviours like grazing and exploring, and past studies have shown positive impacts on udder, foot and leg health.

Smid’s own study showed that cows with outdoor access at night spent less time “perching” during the day – an act linked to lameness, when the cow stands with her two front hooves in the stall.

It might seem obvious – the cows get to graze when they go out to pasture, and food is a strong motivator, right? Smid would agree, for the most part. The cows were fed a corn, mash, grass and alfalfa hay formulation throughout the entire experiment, access to which was easier than grazing. Still, cows with pasture access consumed less of the mixture. It seems that there is something rewarding for cows in the grazing process.

Smid is from Holland, where there are higher numbers of pastured cows, but she recognizes that large outdoor spaces are not always viable for farmers who may need economic incentive to change the layout of their farms. Land is expensive, and for many it may be more economically beneficial to grow crops on an open space than open up the land for cattle.

“Farmers have to make their money; it needs to be economically advantageous for them. Some farmers don’t have enough land – or they have enough land, but it’s not close enough to the barn,” said Smid. “These things can make it really difficult.”

That’s why her study involved sand packs, a potentially more viable option for the average farmer.

“A soft, outdoor pack can provide cows with some of the same benefits as pasture, as it allows cows to stand, walk and lie down without having to navigate the confines of a free stall,” reads Smid’s study.

Dairy cow welfare

Smid’s study is part of a larger movement to focus on the choices and overall contentment of farm animals – which often have more complex preferences than one might expect.

“Cows may prefer different environments for engaging in different behaviours,” reads Smid’s report. “They may prefer one environment for feeding but another for socializing. Many factors influence the preference of dairy cows for pasture access.”

Smid said there are three top elements of animal welfare: health and productivity, natural behaviour, and the “effective state.”

Natural behaviour refers to “motivations for certain types of intuitive behaviours which are important for them to perform to…stay in a good mental state,” Smid said.

And the “effective state” is about the feelings and emotions of the animal – something rarely talked about in scientific research or on the farm.

“If we are trying to determine what is best for the cow but only looking at health then we may miss a part,” said Smid. “The aim is to make sure that all the three different areas are fulfilled.”

While Smid’s research has reinforced established notions that cows benefit from outdoor access, it went further by showing what type of outdoor access the cows prefer – in this case, pasture.

Smid said more studies will be necessary to determine which aspects of pasture access are beneficial to the cows. Her hope is to begin research that finds out just how hard the cows will work to access different spaces.

“We know the preference, but we don’t know the strength of the preference.”