The response to this question would be ‘yes, but this answer is not black and white’. To answer this question, it is helpful to understand the cows’ perspective on outdoor access.

Several studies conducted in Canada and the UK showed that when given a free choice to access pasture, free-stall housed dairy cows that had some experience with pasture chose to spend between 30 and 50% of the day on pasture. At night, cows chose to spend between 80 and 90% of their time on pasture. Even when indoor free-stall availability was reduced (i.e. 0, 6, 8 or 12 stalls per group of 24 cows), this preference for pasture remained stable: cows chose to spend around 40% of the day on pasture, and spend around 80% of the night on pasture, regardless of indoor free-stall availability.

Researchers have also investigated dairy cow preference for alternative types of outdoor areas than pasture. Free-stall housed cows spend 25% of their time on an outdoor wood chip pack in summer when given a free choice, this number dropped to a daily 2% in winter. In another study, free-stall housed cows chose to spend 44% of their time on an outdoor sand pack when given the opportunity at night. However, when cows could choose between a large pasture and the outdoor sand pack during the night, they spent 90% of the time on pasture, 1% of the time on the outdoor sand pack and the remaining time in the free-stall barn. This strong preference of pasture over the outdoor sand pack could have many reasons, including a preference of dairy cows for larger space allowances, and the ability of animals to perform their natural feeding behaviour (i.e. grazing) on pasture.

In the aforementioned studies, cows were provided ad libitum water and TMR inside the barn and feeding time or feed intake did not decrease significantly with outdoor access. Preference for outdoor access was influenced by weather conditions, with rain and cold weather conditions generally decreasing the time cows spent outside.

In light of this question, it is important to address the issue of feasibility of outdoor access on Canadian dairy farms. Numbers obtained in the National Dairy Study showed that in 2015, approximately 30% of Canadian dairy farms provided lactating cows pasture access; approximately 60% of farms provided dry cows pasture access. To better understand these numbers, we recently studied the perspectives of Western Canadian dairy farmers on the provision of outdoor access for dairy cows. Using 11 focus group discussions with a total of 55 dairy farmers, we found 5 main barriers to the provision of outdoor access: 1) climate conditions that are not conducive for outdoor access, 2) negative implications of outdoor access for cow welfare including concerns about udder health, 3) decreases in profitability, 4) farm infrastructure that is not setup for outdoor access, and 5) a better ability to manage animals indoors. We are currently planning a study to investigate how these barriers are represented in the broader Canadian dairy farmer population.

Despite difficulties in providing outdoor access, it is important to realize that good dairy cow welfare extends beyond good physical health and productivity, and also includes the ability of cows to express natural behaviours. Pasture access can facilitate the expression of grazing, walking, lying and estrus behaviours; to a lesser extent, alternative types of outdoor areas also facilitate some of these behaviours. As such, the provision of pasture or outdoor access can play an important role in improving the lives of dairy cows. Considering that cow preference for outdoor access depends on many factors, including weather conditions, providing cows a choice to access the outdoors may be of particular importance.

You can watch this video for more information on dairy cattle preference for different types of outdoor access.

– Dr. Anne-Marieke Smid, University of Calgary