NEW RESEARCH: Providing opportunity for movement to dairy cows by redefining indoor and outdoor spaces and best management practices

Providing freedom of movement to dairy animals was cited in the top five predominant welfare concerns by respondents (43.75% were general public) to the National Farm Animal Council’s online dairy cattle survey in 2019.i As humans, we see increasing movement and exercise as good for our health. By extension, the same concepts are being applied to domesticated animals and production animals in confinement. A growing body of evidence is showing health and welfare benefits for dairy animals. But many questions remain on HOW dairy cattle can best benefit in the context of existing housing and management practices and WHY the animals behave in certain ways toward exercise or more movement.

New research led by Elsa Vasseur at McGill University and funded by the Dairy Research Cluster 3 (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Dairy Farmers of Canada), will soon change our understanding of cow movement and exercise for dairy cattle housed in tie-stalls. The researcher and her collaborators are rethinking how spaces can be adapted to provide dairy cows the opportunity for more movement and exercise. They are developing, re-designing and testing indoor and outdoor spaces in a tie-stall environment to allow cows more movement while minimizing the costs to make changes and minimizing environmental impacts. Their results will serve to develop best management practices that are efficient, cost-effective and sustainable with beneficial effects for the animals, including improvements to cow comfort and health. 

The research project is timely given that revisions to the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle (2009) and targets for better animal welfare outcomes are being considered by the industry. Up until recently, very little research has been done on the relevant and practical options to provide opportunities for movement or exercise to dairy cattle in tie-stall housing systems. Tie-stall housing makes up about 70% of the dairy cattle housing systems in use in Canada and were built because of advantages like minimizing competition for feed and lying space, and the ability to care and observe the animals individually. But for the general public, they are seen as restricting the animal’s natural or normal behaviours.

Evidence to date on cow movement and exercise suggests that the outcomes for the animals can benefit their health, behaviour and welfare.ii Some studies demonstrated that:

  • Cows are motivated to access the outdoors when provided the opportunity in both winter iii and summer ivconditions when housed in different indoor housing systems (i.e. typical freestall barn, deep bedding composted pack, etc.).
  • Tie-stall farms that provided cows with outdoor access had 20% fewer lame cows and 16% fewer cows with hock injuries at the end of the winter (the period during which cows are most restricted to the indoors) than farms providing no outdoor access.v
  • Tie-stall cows have fewer hoof lesions (10% less) if access to an outdoor yard was provided.vi

The HOW – Adapting existing tie-stall systems

The researchers are examining several options to increase cow movement in tie-stall systems. They are measuring the optimal amount and length of time for movement and exercise, and at different frequencies; observing cows’ behaviour indoors and outdoors; recording the types of activities the cows engage in; and how active they are during exercise periods. They will also evaluate the effects of providing exercise on cows’ locomotion, on different outcome measures of welfare (i.e. lying time, injuries), and the impact on milk production. 

An economic and environmental assessment will identify the effects of providing indoor and outdoor exercise periods on farmers’ workloads as well as the effects on air and groundwater quality.

The WHY – Cow behaviour toward more exercise and movement

Researchers note that there may be some challenges to consider when the opportunity for more movement or exercise is provided to cows. It depends on an individual cow’s motivation to do so.

“Perhaps the biggest barrier to the efficacy of outdoor access as a means to elicit increased locomotor activity in the cow is the fact that it is largely dependent on the individual cow to engage in activities related to movement when provided this addition to her housing environment. Cows that display higher levels of locomotor activity are likely to do so in any environment in which they are placed, and visa-versa for low activity level cows. When providing free access to the outdoors, it is necessary to consider the cow’s preference to go outdoors versus her preference to stay inside.”vii

Elise Shepley, PhD student working on the research project.

Download a copy of the project summary here: Providing opportunity for movement to dairy cows by redefining indoor and outdoor spaces and best management practices

Project Overview

Principal Investigator: Elsa Vasseur (McGill University)

Co-Investigators: Stéphane Godbout (Institut de recherche et de développement en agroenvironnement), Sébastien Fournel (Université Laval), Marianne Villettaz Robichaud (Université de Montréal), Yan Martel Kennes, Pierre Ruel (Centre de recherche en sciences animales de Deschambault) 

Collaborators: Anne-Marie de Passillé, Jeff Rushen (University of British Columbia), Steve Adam (Lactanet), Doris Pellerin (Université Laval) 

Period:  2018-2022

Partners:  Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Dairy Farmers of Canada, in-kind contribution by Centre de recherche en sciences animales de Deschambault (CRSAD)

Budget:  $542,525


i https://www.nfacc.ca/pdfs/EN_FinalDairyReport19Sept2019_docx.pdf

ii https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159120301143?dgcid=rss_sd_all

iii-iv Shepley et al., 2017b; Shepley et al., 2017a

Palacio et al. (2017)

vi Desrochers and Daigle (2017)

vii Elise Shepley: The way she moooves: Improving on our understanding of exercise in dairy cows. https://www.cowlifemcgill.com/post/the-way-she-moooves-improving-on-our-understanding-of-exercise-in-dairy-cows

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