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Free-ranging dairy cows have a much healthier lifestyle

A new study led by the University of Bern in the Switzerland has compared the locomotion behavior of free-ranging dairy cows grazing on traditional summer mountain farms with that of cattle grown in modern cubicle housing without access to pastures. According to the researchers, traditionally-raised cows were more active and spent over 12 hours per day standing and moving around – a much healthier lifestyle than that of their confined counterparts.

“Welfare of intensively farmed animals and whether the housing systems allow individuals to express natural behavior, are of public concern. Pasture based husbandry systems enable cattle to express their natural behavior such as grazing, freedom of movement, and social interaction and thus provide better welfare than confinement systems,” wrote the study authors. 

“However, due to the increasing use of conventional indoor housing systems and automated milking systems combined with continuously increasing herd size, zero grazing systems are becoming more and more common in many countries of the European Union.”

While keeping dairy cows indoors allows for the control of climatic and environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, bedding availability, adjusted feed supply, or regular health checks, scientists worry that such confinement could compromise the animals’ well-being by stopping them from expressing their normal behavior and thus making them prone to various physical and psychological distress. 

To test this hypothesis, researchers measured locomotion activity of healthy dairy cows kept on mountain pastures and compared it with that of cows kept in cubicle housing systems. The cows were equipped with a 3D-accelerometer on one of their hind legs, and their locomotion behavior – in terms of walking time, lying time, walking bouts, standing bouts, or number of strides – was recorded for 48 hours.

The results shown that mountain pasture cows had higher locomotor activity levels, spending almost a double amount of time walking than their penned counterparts. “In summary, cows kept on mountain pasture were more active and spent longer than 12 hours/day standing. Lying markedly less than 12 hours per day seems to represent the normal behavior of pastured cows searching for fresh grass. This does not cause any obvious damage to the locomotor system as claws of cattle are well adapted to long periods of movement on mountain pastures,” concluded the authors.

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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