It’s springtime in the UK and hundreds of thousands of cows are being let outside for the first time since the onset of winter. Social media is full of videos of the animals joyfully jumping and galloping as they rush through farm gates into grassy fields.
“On the first day out, I would assemble my family to watch,” remembers retired dairy farmer Guy Hardy, from Pembrokeshire. “Cows need to go outside because they are grazing animals, and in season in the UK they need to be out foraging for grass and taking advantage of the weather – not stuck in a concrete shed.”
Yet many cows will be indoors this spring. At least a fifth of the UK dairy herd are kept in continuously housed systems. Fresh food and water is brought by machines, with every mouthful rationed and monitored.
It’s a stress-free existence for the cows, says Warwickshire dairy farmer Charles Goady, who keeps 350 cows indoors all year round. “They are bred into this system, so it’s not like we’re taking a wild animal and putting them in here. If we let them outside they would wonder what was going on.”
He has installed ventilation, lighting and brushes, against which cows can rub and groom themselves. Each also wears a sensor to monitor its movements – a “fitbit for cows”, says Goady – which helps flag up signs of ill health. He insists: “I wouldn’t want to change my system.”
new study published in Nature suggests keeping cows indoors may damage their emotional wellbeing. It’s part of an increasing body of literature demonstrating cows’ desire to go outside.
“Cows are happier if they have the choice to go outdoors,” says Prof Mark Rutter, author of studies of dairy cows’ preference for pasture. But rather than wanting to go outside to munch on grass, it is the open space and soft ground to lie on that they appear to value most.
“The gold standard is to be able to go in and out depending on whether it’s good weather or not,” says Rutter.
Prompted by these findings and
public opposition to cows housed permanently indoors, some supermarkets and brands have begun to market themselves as supporters of “free range” dairy, guaranteeing cows are outdoors for a minimum number of days each year.
Fraser Jones, a dairy farmer who keeps 700 cows housed all year round in Welshpool, Powys, says his herd does not miss out from being indoors. He says: “It’s nice to create this image of cows out on the grass, but they’re only skipping on the first day because it’s something different. The next day you’ll see them just plodding along.
“Our weather here is so unpredictable. When it’s hot the cows get sunburnt, and when it’s wet they’re huddling under hedgerows or tramping knee-high in mud. I don’t want to farm that way, it’s not right for the cows.”
By contrast, says Jones, keeping cows indoors means he can give them protection from the weather, a consistent supply of fresh water and feed and good bedding, not concrete.
“The only difference is the grass. The indoor system has got a bad reputation on the back of bad videos, but I know my cows are happy here. To me, you measure a cow’s happiness if she’s fit, healthy and producing milk.”
But not giving cows the choice to go out to pasture may leave farmers with less productive animals, says Mike Mendl, a professor of animal behaviour at Bristol University.
“If animals are given the choice of what to do, they are likely to be in a better state than those who can’t make choices,” he says. “And there is pretty good evidence to show that animals in a positive state will produce more milk and have less problems requiring veterinary intervention.”
The UK’s biggest milk company Arla – which supplies Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco – has started its own project to try to measure cows’ happiness by identifying behavioural traits.
One of the farmers taking part in the so-called
happy cow project is Neil Dyson, who runs a dairy with both fully housed and grazing cows in the Chilterns. Putting cows out to graze after calving reduces the cost of providing them with feed and cleaning their housing area, he says. But he keeps his higher-yielding cows indoors, as they wouldn’t get enough nutrition from pastures alone.
“If you were to look at our cows grazing outdoors in spring with the Chilterns in the background, then compared with the cows indoors it looks a more holistic system. And aesthetically I think it looks nicer, too. But I don’t think it’s very scientific for me to do that.
“I don’t think they prefer being outdoors. What cows like is repetition and consistency. I can tell you whether a cow is happy or not when walking into my shed, but I use the word ‘content’ because to me that means the animal is exhibiting normal behaviour.”
Rosamund Young, farmer and author of
The Secret Life of Cows, agrees that “content” rather than “happy” is a better way to measure cow welfare. “Especially as we, mere humans, can never actually know what cows are feeling,” she says. “Although one has to remember that every dairy farmer will defend the system he or she employs. To do otherwise would be to admit to knowingly doing the wrong thing.”
For some farmers, allowing cows outside is not an option. “The setup would make it hard to do here. They would have to walk across a yard where slurry is scraped. It’s like ice, so there is a risk they would slip and pick up an injury,” says Goady.
Indoor systems may be able to recreate the benefits of outdoor access through the use of enrichment tools – such as brushes – and better spacing and bedding, says Gareth Arnott, a lecturer in animal behaviour and welfare at Queen’s University Belfast, and co-author of the Nature study.
Both Arnott and Rutter say farms such as the “
cow garden” in the Netherlands, with animals housed indoors among trees and greenery, show what is possible in modern dairy systems.
But Young is more sceptical: “Enrichment tools are better than nothing, but, as the word enrichment suggests, an indoor environment is obviously lacking, or it wouldn’t need ‘enriching’.”
Ultimately, the public will dictate what is seen as acceptable in terms of cow welfare, says Rutter. “Science can tell that a system causes more or less stress, or motivates a cow to do this or that, but it can’t tell you what is right. That is up to society.”
And for now there is not much chance of society readily accepting indoor housing, says Goady.
“I wouldn’t want my own milk to be labelled as being from indoor housed cows,” he says. “Not because it shows me up for being a baddie, but because in the eyes of the public I’d be seen that way because we haven’t properly explained how and why we do what we do.”
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