IIt is spring in the UK and hundreds of thousands of cows are out in the open for the first time since the beginning of winter. Social media is full of videos of the animals happily jumping and galloping as they race through the farm gates into the grassy fields.
“The first day out, I would gather my family to watch,” recalls Guy Hardy, a retired dairy farmer from Pembrokeshire. “Cows need to get out in the open because they are grazing animals, and in the UK season they need to go out looking for grass and taking advantage of the weather, not trapped in a concrete shed.”
However, many cows will be indoors this spring. At least one fifth of the UK dairy herd is kept in continuous housing systems. The machines bring fresh food and water, with each bite rationed and controlled.
It’s a stress-free existence for cows, says Warwickshire dairy farmer Charles Goady, who keeps 350 cows indoors year-round. “They breed in this system, so it’s not like we’re taking a wild animal and putting it here. If we let them out, they’ll wonder what’s going on. “
It has installed ventilation, lighting and brushes, against which the cows can rub and groom themselves. Each also uses a sensor to monitor its movements, a “Fitbit for cows,” Goady says, which helps detect signs of poor health. He insists: “I don’t want to change my system.”
But a new study published in Nature suggests that keeping cows indoors can harm their emotional well-being. It is part of a growing body of literature that demonstrates the desire of cows to be outdoors.
“Cows are happier if they have the option of being outdoors,” says Professor Mark Rutter, author of studies on dairy cows’ preference for pasture. But instead of wanting to go out to eat grass, it’s the open space and soft ground to lay on that they seem to value the most.
“The gold standard is being able to get in and out depending on whether the weather is nice or not,” says Rutter.
Driven by these findings and public opposition For cows permanently housed indoors, some supermarkets and brands have begun promoting themselves as supporters of “free-range” dairy, ensuring that cows are outdoors for a minimum number of days a year.
Fraser Jones, a dairy farmer who has 700 cows housed year-round in Welshpool, Powys, says his herd is still indoors. He says, “It’s nice to create this image of cows on the grass, but they only jump on the first day because it’s something different. The next day, you will see them walk slowly.
“Our weather here is so unpredictable. When it’s hot, cows get sunburned and when it’s wet they huddle under hedges or step knee-deep in mud. I don’t want to farm that way, it’s not suitable for cows. “
Rather, Jones says, keeping cows indoors means you can provide them with protection from the weather, a constant supply of fresh water and feed, and a good litter, not concrete.
“The only difference is the grass. The indoor system gets a bad rap thanks to bad videos, but I know my cows are happy here. For me, the happiness of a cow is measured if it is fit, healthy and produces milk. “
But not giving cows the option to go out to graze can leave farmers with less productive animals, says Mike Mendl, professor of animal behavior at the University of Bristol.
“If animals are given the option to choose what to do, they are likely to be in a better state than those who cannot choose,” he says. “And there is a lot of evidence showing that animals in a positive state will produce more milk and have fewer problems requiring veterinary intervention.”
The UK’s largest dairy company, Arla, which supplies Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, has started its own project to try to measure cow happiness by identifying behavioral traits.
One of the farmers participating in the call happy cow project is Neil Dyson, who runs a dairy with grazing cows and full lodging in the Chilterns. Taking cows out to pasture after calving reduces the cost of feeding them and cleaning their housing area, he says. But he keeps his top-performing cows indoors, as they wouldn’t get enough nutrition from pasture alone.
“If you look at our cows grazing outdoors in the spring with the Chiltern in the background, then compared to the cows indoors, it seems like a more holistic system. And aesthetically I think it also looks better. But I don’t think it’s very scientific for me to do that.
“I don’t think they prefer to be outdoors. What cows like is repetition and consistency. I can tell you if a cow is happy or not when it comes into my shed, but I use the word ‘content’ because to me that means that the animal is exhibiting normal behavior. “
Rosamund Young, farmer and author of The Secret Life of Cows, agrees that “content” rather than “happy” is a better way to measure the well-being of cows. “Especially since we mere humans can never really know what cows feel,” he says. “Although it must be remembered that every dairy producer will defend the system he uses. To do otherwise would be to admit knowingly doing the wrong thing. ”
For some farmers, allowing cows to go outside is not an option. “The setup would make it difficult to do it here. They would have to cross a patio where the grout is scraped off. It’s like ice, so there is a risk that they will slip and get injured, ”says Goady.
Indoor systems can recreate the benefits of outdoor access by using enrichment tools, such as brushes, and better spacing and bedding, says Gareth Arnott, professor of animal behavior and welfare at Queen’s University Belfast, and a co-author of the study of nature.
Both Arnott and Rutter say that farms like “cow orchard“In the Netherlands, with animals housed indoors among trees and vegetation, they show what is possible in modern dairy systems.
But Young is more skeptical: “The enrichment tools are better than nothing, but, as the word enrichment suggests, an inner environment is obviously missing, or would not need ‘enrichment.”
Ultimately, the public will dictate what is considered acceptable in terms of cow welfare, Rutter says. “Science can say that a system causes more or less stress, or motivates a cow to do this or that, but it cannot tell you what is the right thing to do. That depends on society. “
And for now, there’s not much chance that society will easily accept indoor housing, Goady says.
“I would not want my own milk to be labeled as from cows housed indoors,” he says. “Not because it shows me that I am bad, but because in the eyes of the public they would see me that way because we have not adequately explained how and why we do what we do.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism