Knowledge for better food systems

Dairy cows value access to pasture as highly as fresh feed

This research measures dairy cows’ motivation to access the outdoors. The results show cows are highly motivated for outdoor access. The majority of the cows in this experiment pushed through a weighted gate at least as hard to access pasture as they did to access fresh feed.

The cows in this experiment had free access to fresh feed inside the barn, indicating that their motivation to access pasture was not driven by hunger. Consistent with earlier results, showing that preference for access to pasture is stronger at night, the cows in this experiment pushed harder for access to pasture in the evening than in the morning.

Adherence to farm assurance standards of intensive indoor systems safeguard cows’ basic needs for food, water, hygiene and shelter. However, to meet behavioural needs – with positive experiences such as comfort and pleasure and what the public might call ‘a good life’ – the welfare requirements are substantially higher than current legal minimum standards. The researchers say these results echo public opinion that a good life for cattle includes access to the outdoors. The researchers suggest that further research could investigate the nature of this motivation for outdoor access, by providing cows with grazing opportunities versus outdoor access only.


Many dairy cows in the developed world are now housed exclusively indoors with fewer than 5% of the 10 million lactating cows in the United States having access to pasture during the grazing season. Indoor housing systems are designed to meet biological needs for food, water, hygiene, and shelter, but surveys of public and farmer opinion suggest that people think that pasture access is also important for the well-being of dairy cows. To determine if pasture access is important to the cows themselves, we investigated to what extent cows will work to access pasture (by pushing on a weighted gate), and compared it to the motivation to access fresh feed. Cows worked at least as hard to access pasture as they did to access the fresh feed and worked hardest for outdoor access in the evening hours. Echoing public views on what allows for a good life for cattle, these results show that cows are highly motivated for outdoor access.


von Keyserlingk, M.A., Cestari, A.A., Franks, B., Fregonesi, J.A. and Weary, D.M., 2017. Dairy cows value access to pasture as highly as fresh feed. Scientific Reports, 7, p.44953.

You can read the full article here (open access).

You might be interested in the report: Farm animal welfare: Past, present and future, which looks back at how UK farm animal welfare assurance schemes have developed over the past 20 years, and assesses potential future development of such schemes.

The FCRN have two discussion papers on animal welfare:

Animal efficiencies, animal welfare: either/or, or both/and? Some Reflections from an Informal Meeting

Breeding for productivity and breeding for welfare: what is the relationship?

You can also search for animal health and welfare in our website’s Research Library.

You can read related research by browsing the following categories of our research library:

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