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News Article

Pasture access improves emotional wellbeing in dairy cows             


Study shows pasture is a more rewarding environment

New research conducted by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast indicates that “livestock lockdown” may damage emotional wellbeing in dairy cows. Their findings have been published in the open access Scientific Reports.

In humans, negative moods are linked to pessimistic judgements about ambiguous stimuli, e.g., depression and anxiety sufferers tend to expect fewer positive outcomes in life. On the other hand, happy emotions and moods are linked to more optimistic judgements.

Dr Gareth Arnott, Senior Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Queen’s University and principal investigator on the study, explained that there have long been concerns amongst animal welfare researchers and dairy consumers that depriving dairy cattle of pasture access harms their welfare. Pasture access can promote natural behaviour, improve health, and given the choice cows tend to spend most of their time outside. The present judgement bias study, the first of its kind in cows, hopes to measure the effects of pasture access on dairy cows’ psychological wellbeing.

The study, in collaboration with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, involved giving 29 Holstein-Friesian dairy cows 18 days of overnight pasture access (which previous studies suggest improves wellbeing) and 18 days of full-time indoor housing (which previous studies suggest harms welfare).

Each cow was taught to approach a food rewarded bucket location, but not approach another, unrewarded bucket location. After learning this task, to test judgement bias, the researchers presented cows with buckets in between the trained locations. According to the researchers, approaching these intermediate buckets would reflect an expectation of reward under ambiguity – an “optimistic” judgement bias, suggesting positive emotional states. The results showed that cows kept indoors full-time were quicker in approaching the known rewarded bucket location.

Andrew Crump, a postdoctoral researcher from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s and lead author of the paper, said that “increased reward anticipation suggests that an animal has fewer rewards in its life, with the results of the study indicating that pasture is a more rewarding environment for dairy cows, which may induce more positive emotional wellbeing than full-time housing”.

Crump said that both Britain and Ireland have mostly resisted the trend towards full-time housing of dairy cows indoors. The researchers hope that the findings will make farmers, retailers, government and consumers aware of the importance of pasture access for cow welfare, and should be retained. In countries where full-time housing is common, it is hoped this and other welfare studies challenge this trend.

The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) Hillsborough hosted the study. This work was funded by Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy, as well as a project that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

Crump A, Jenkins K, Bethell EJ, Ferris CP, Kabboush H, Weller J, Arnott G (2021). Optimism and pasture access in dairy cows. Scientific Reports 11: 4882, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-84371-x

Article details

  • Date
  • 24 March 2021
  • Source
  • Queen's University Belfast
  • Subject(s)
  • Veterinary medicine