Dairy cow preference for different types of outdoor access

Anne Marieke C. Smid, Daniel M. Weary, Joao H.C. Costa, Marina A.G. von Keyserlingk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Dairy cows display a partial preference for being outside, but little is known about what aspects of the outdoor environment are important to cows. The primary aim of this study was to test the preference of lactating dairy cattle for pasture versus an outdoor sand pack during the night. A secondary aim was to determine whether feeding and perching behavior changed when cows were provided outdoor access. A third objective was to investigate how the lying behavior of cows changed when given access to different outdoor areas. Ninety-six lactating pregnant cows were assigned to 8 groups of 12 animals each. After a baseline phase of 2 d in which cows were kept inside the freestall barn, cows were habituated to the outdoor areas by providing them access to each of the 2 options for 24 h. Cows were then given access, in random order by group, to either the pasture (pasture phase) or the sand pack (sand phase). As we tested the 2 outdoor options using space allowances consistent with what would be practical on commercial dairy farms, the space provided on pasture was larger (21,000 m2) than that provided on the sand pack (144 m2). Cows were tested at night (for 2 nights in each condition), from 2000 h until morning milking at approximately 0800 h, as preference to be outdoors is strongest at this time. During the next 3 nights cows were given access to both outside options simultaneously (choice phase). Feeding and perching behaviors were recorded when cows were indoors during the day and night periods. Lying behavior was automatically recorded by HOBO data loggers (Onset, Bourne, MA). Cows spent more time outside in the pasture phase (90.0 ± 5.9%) compared with the sand phase (44.4 ± 6.3%). When provided simultaneous access to both options, cows spent more time on pasture than on the sand pack (90.5 ± 2.6% vs. 0.8 ± 0.5%, respectively). Time spent feeding indoors during the day did not change regardless of what type of outdoor access was provided, but there was a decline in perching during the day when cows were provided access to either outdoor option at night. Lying time in the pasture phase was lower than in the baseline or sand phase. During the nighttime, lying time outside was not different between the sand (55.4 ± 7.9%) and pasture (52.0 ± 7.4%) phases. In summary, cows spent a considerable amount of time outside during the night when given the opportunity and showed a preference for a large pasture versus a small sand pack as an outdoor area.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1448-1455
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Dairy Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the staff of the University of British Columbia's Dairy Education and Research Centre (Agassiz, BC, Canada) for their help with the experiment. We also thank members of the University of British Columbia's Animal Welfare Program, in particular Marta Leal and Jensine Wilm, for their help with the video analysis. In addition, we thank Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (Agassiz, BC, Canada) for providing us access to the hourly weather data. A. M. C. Smid was supported in part by the Irving K. Barber Victory in Europe scholarship. J. H. C. Costa was supported in part by a scholarship from CNPq (Brasília, Brazil). M. A. G. von Keyserlingk and D. M. Weary are supported by Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC; Ottawa, ON, Canada) via the Industrial Research Chair Program with industry contributions from the Dairy Farmers of Canada (Ottawa, ON, Canada), British Columbia Dairy Association (Burnaby, BC, Canada), Westgen Endowment Fund (Milner, BC, Canada), Intervet Canada Corporation (Kirkland, QC, Canada), Zoetis (Kirkland, QC, Canada), Novus International Inc. (Oakville, ON, Canada), BC Cattle Industry Development Fund (Kamloops, BC, Canada), Alberta Milk (Edmonton, AB, Canada), Valacta (St. Anne-de-Bellevue, QC, Canada), and CanWest DHI (Guelph, ON, Canada).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 American Dairy Science Association


  • animal welfare
  • exercise
  • free range
  • pasture
  • sand pack

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Genetics


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