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Dairy cows want access to pasture as much as food, finds UBC study

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dairy cows pastureIf you ever wondered what made dairy cows happy, the freedom to roam in a pasture under the stars is a large part.

New research from the University of British Columbia found dairy cows that are housed indoors are determined to do everything in their power for the chance to be outside during the evening hours.

The study, which was recently published in Scientific Reports, was conducted by having these farm animals push on weighted gates to discover how much work they were willing to put in to access pasture, with the most effort shown at night.

Researchers also measured as a means of comparison how much the cows would exert themselves to obtain their regular feed on the other side of the weighted gates. The study states going outside and eating when hungry were equal motivators for the dairy cows.

“Improving the cow’s quality of life is obviously important for the animal, but it’s also important for the people involved, including the farmers that care for them and the consumers who buy dairy products,” said co-author and UBC animal welfare professor Dan Weary.”

Marina von Keyserlingk, the study’s lead author and an animal welfare professor in UBC’s faculty of land and food systems, said many dairy cows in Canada, the United States, and around the world are exclusively housed inside, which meets the basic needs of food, water, hygiene, and shelter. However, she added, this denies the animal the opportunity to graze and partake in other natural behaviours.

This research further supports surveys that show the public and farmers believe accessing pasture is vital to the wellbeing of the cows, stated the article.

A 2013 study published in the academic journal Anthrozoos had scientists at Newcastle University finding cows that were given a name, thus treating them as individuals, produced more milk than cows that remained nameless.

Doctors Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson showed farmers could increase their annual milk yield by almost 500 pints by utilizing this simple method.

“This was part of a larger study examining the impact of a pleasant relationship between human and cow,” said Douglas, in an interview with Scientist Live.

Studies with other animals show reducing fear improves many areas, but they did not want to provoke fear in the experimental herd, she explained.
“Instead we wanted to see if, by improving the relationship with humans (so cows liked human company), we would see improvements in welfare, behaviour, and production.”

Douglas added the survey, to which approximately 550 farmers responded, asked for a range of indicators of how farmers interacted with their cattle. Just one of these questions was “do you call your cows by name”.

There was no difference in milk yield concerning the other questions, she said, but a significant difference over the question about the name with 3.5 per cent.

“Farmers chose the genetics of their herd carefully to get good milkers; cows also have a carefully formulated diet to maximise milk yield, but this finding, that suggests that good stockmanship can considerably increase milk yield, should be very heartening to the compassionate farmer,” said Douglas.


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