Cows Prefer Outdoor Access
“Freestalls” are a commonly used housing system for dairy cows in various climates. While freestall housing can provide protection from extreme weather, pasture access is known to be beneficial for foot and leg health, and provides opportunities for cows to engage in natural behaviors. Due to space requirements for pasture, some farms provide access to outdoor areas other than pasture, but knowledge about what aspects of the outdoor environment are important to dairy cows is limited.
In order to improve understanding of cows’ preferences for outdoor spaces, this study examined the preference of dairy cows for pasture compared to an outdoor sand pack. The study also investigated whether feeding, perching, and lying behavior changed when outdoor access was provided.
The study was conducted at the University of British Columbia Dairy and Education Research Centre with 96 lactating pregnant cows. The cows were divided into groups of 8 and kept inside a freestall barn for 2 days during a baseline phase and then were habituated to the two outdoor areas for 24 hours each. Next, the groups of cows were given access in random order to either the pasture or the sand pack for two nights. Finally, cows were given access to both the pasture and sand pack for three nights in a choice phase. Researchers recorded cow behavior using video cameras and used 5-minute scan sampling to score location, feeding, and perching. Data loggers attached to one of the rear legs of each cow were used to record lying or standing posture in 1-minute intervals.
When cows were provided access only to pasture, they spent 90% of their time outside, whereas when cows were provided access only to the sand pack, they spent approximately 44% of the time outside. In the choice phase, cows spent over 90% of the time on pasture and less than 1% of the time on the sand pack. Time spent feeding during the day did not change between phases but cows spent less time perching during the day in both the pasture and sand phase compared to baseline.
The amount of time cows spent lying outside at night did not differ between the pasture and sand phase, suggesting that comfort of the surface was not responsible for the preference for pasture. The influence of other aspects of the outdoor environment on cows’ preferences, such as the opportunity to graze and additional space, requires further investigation, according to the researchers.
This study demonstrated that cows prefer to spend much of the night outside. Cows displayed a strong preference for the pasture over the sand pack, but access to both types of outdoor spaces were associated with less daytime perching, which is a risk for lameness (mobility issues).
Although the reasons that famers and animal advocates prioritize cow welfare differ, animal advocates may find that farmers are willing to implement dairy cow housing systems that satisfy cows’ preferences for outdoor access by emphasizing that outdoor access can reduce the risk of health issues. For animal advocates, the study supports something we seem to know intuitively: that given the choice animals prefer space, fresh air, and daylight over confinement.