A well-known ad campaign used imagery of dairy cows outdoors on a sunny pasture, with a tagline referring to “happy cows.” It’s not too surprising that a 2014 survey found that 89 percent of consumers thought dairy cows should have access to pasture.

But cows are not like humans. So it’s important to understand what’s good for their health and what the cows themselves think in order to appropriately accommodate the needs of their species. Good thing scientists have validated techniques to evaluate animal health as well as for asking cows what they value, even if they can’t respond in words.

There are indeed several benefits of pasture for dairy-cattle health, including better air quality and improved locomotion scores throughout time. Also cows show less aggression toward one another when they have more space outdoors. To ask cows how important that kind of environment is to them, some researchers gave them the chance to leave the freestall barn for pasture – but the cows needed to push increasingly heavy weighted gates to do so.

They found the cows were willing to push equally heavy gates to go outside in order to access fresh total-mixed ration after being deprived of feed for a period. They still pushed the heavy gates to go outside even when they had total-mixed ration inside the barn. The message from the cows was that going outside is something they perceive as valuable. But that’s not the end of the story.

Although the opportunity to go on pasture can be important to cows, that doesn’t mean they want to be out there all the time. In another study the cows were housed in the same sand-bedded freestall barn with free access to total-mixed ration. They could freely choose when to go outside onto pasture. The cows demonstrated that they liked to go outside sometimes – primarily at night in the warm season. But they also chose to be in the barn during other times.

When it was raining cows spent more time inside the barn. Cows avoid wet surfaces. When their only option is wet bedding or mud, it dramatically decreases their lying time. Lying time is an important behavior they need to spend more than half of the day engaging in. Mud also decreases cow cleanliness and milk yield, and increases digital dermatitis. Shelter and a dry bed are important for cow comfort.

On the flip side cows also spent more time inside the barn during the day time, especially in warmer weather. Cows are susceptible to heat stress, so unlike people sunbathing is not an activity they enjoy in summer. Shade is an extremely important resource for them.

A study found that cows who are required to stand for a while will choose to keep standing if they are allowed to do so in the shade, rather than take the opportunity to lie down if they must do so in the sun. Cows will also choose shade compared to soakers that aren’t shaded, even if the water spray is more effective for cooling them. When those resources are combined and cows aren’t forced to choose between shade and soakers, they will gladly use soakers to cool off.

The studies reveal that, in a cow’s eyes, one environment isn’t always superior to another. There are many factors involved in keeping cows healthy and happy in different circumstances.

A recent study demonstrated that consumers can have an encouragingly nuanced understanding about those types of tradeoffs when given the chance to consider various housing scenarios. Consumer perception of cows on pasture was overall more positive than for cows kept in a barn. But when the possibility of heat stress was mentioned, participants rated keeping cows on pasture with shade trees more favorably than pasturing cows without shade. But also they favored keeping cows indoors in a barn – sheltered from the sun and cooled with fans – compared with keeping cows outside in the full sun.

That intriguing finding illustrates that although consumers often have an expectation that dairy cows should have pasture access, they don’t necessarily think that should be at the expense of cow thermal comfort. The cows themselves have indicated that pasture can be beneficial for their health and welfare – sometimes. But at other times exposure to environmental extremes can be detrimental; then they seek the benefits of shelter.

Pasture per se isn’t always feasible for every dairy operation to provide for all their cattle. Some studies have investigated alternative outdoor areas, both from the perspectives of the cows and consumers. Exercise yards may provide an option for a middle ground that could satisfy many consumers – and give cows beneficial opportunities in a manner more practical for a wider range of producers.

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Jennifer Van Os is an assistant professor and University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension specialist in animal welfare in the department of dairy science at UW-Madison. Email jvanos@wisc.edu to reach her.