People like to see dairy cows in pastures. Whether the cows like to be in pastures is another matter.
Anne-Marieke Smid, a University of British Columbia PhD student in animal welfare, is exploring dairy cow preferences for pasture or other outdoor bedding packs such as sand or bark mulch.
“People like to see cows on pasture, but cows themselves don’t always want to be on pasture, so that is something that really interests me,” said Smid.
“I’m from the Netherlands, and I see a lot of citizens … they really are in favour of cows going outside, though a lot of farmers are not. Then I came here, and I saw a lot of cows are not outside, which is completely different to the situation in the Netherlands.”
Smid said the Netherlands is considering legislation requiring farmers to allow cows access to pasture. Pasture access is among the most frequently asked questions when visitors come to the UBC dairy farm, she added.
Land availability and dairy production efficiency are two factors at the heart of Canadian dairy operations.
Smid is exploring cows’ use of smaller outdoor areas bedded with sand or mulch as an alternative to larger pasture access.
“I was really interested in alternative outdoor areas because it’s more feasible for most farms because you don’t need as much space.”
She tested eight groups of dairy cows, each with 12 animals. Findings are preliminary, but Smid said the cows preferred pasture over either sand or bark mulch at night, and given the choice of a sand pack or the barn at night, most cows spent half the night outdoors on the sand.
At this point, research seems to indicate that if pasture is not an option, “it can be a huge benefit to both cows and farmers if you can provide an alternative outer area other than pasture,” said Smid.
There is anecdotal evidence that access to an outdoor bedding pack can reduce lameness and affect estrus behaviour, but that has yet to be proven through research.
Smid said her study might also have a bearing on public perceptions of dairy cow welfare.
“Maybe people will already regard our farms … in a much more positive way when they see that the cows can go outside, even though it’s not to pasture,” she said.
“So its kind of trying to see how we can increase welfare if pasture access is not an option and do it in a more feasible way than only pasture.”
As for cows’ preferences, previous studies have shown they prefer to lie on pasture on summer nights, but on hot days the barn gets the nod.
Besides weather and temperature factors, dairy cows might prefer to lie down in other areas because there are no constraints such as stall partitions, and they can choose their distance from the nearest neighbour, according to research.
The fact that dairy cows can graze when on pasture may not be as important as once assumed. If they continue to receive their usual ration, dairy cows increase their food intake only slightly when given pasture access.
“For cows, we know that lying, for example, is very important,” said Smid. “ Of course, feeding is important, but is grazing? Is the actual act of grazing important? We don’t know yet.”