Emotional wellbeing of dairy cows may be hurt by ‘livestock lockdown’, study finds

New research indicates damaging effect for cattle of lack of access to outside pasture

Dairy cows that have no access to outside pasture may have damaged emotional wellbeing, new research led by Queen’s University Belfast indicates.

The research, which has been published in the nature journal Scientific Reports, sets out that while the last year has shown the psychological damage that lockdown can have on human wellbeing, “livestock lockdown”, meaning a lack of access to outside pasture, may also damage emotional wellbeing in dairy cows.

The researchers explained that, in humans, negative moods are linked to pessimistic judgments about ambiguous stimuli and depression and anxiety sufferers tend to expect fewer positive outcomes in life.

“By contrast, happy emotions and moods are linked to more optimistic judgments,” they said.

This study is the first of its kind to investigate whether dairy cows also have this judgment bias, and whether optimistic judgments can be used as an indicator of their psychological wellbeing, which is important for animal welfare.

Longstanding concerns

Dr Gareth Arnott, senior lecturer in animal behaviour and welfare at Queen's and principal investigator on the research, said animal welfare scientists and dairy consumers have long been concerned that depriving dairy cattle of pasture access harms their welfare.

“Pasture access can promote natural behaviour [and] improve cows’ health, and cows, given the choice, spend most of their time outside. However, the effects of pasture access on dairy cows’ psychological wellbeing have been poorly understood – that is what our judgment bias study intended to measure,” he said.

To conduct their study the researchers, as part of a collaboration with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, gave 29 Holstein-Friesian dairy cows 18 days of overnight pasture access, which previous studies suggest improves wellbeing, and 18 days of full-time indoor housing, which previous studies suggest harms welfare.

Each cow was then trained to approach a food-rewarded bucket location, but not approach another, unrewarded bucket location.

After learning this task, to test judgment bias, the researchers presented cows with other buckets in between the trained locations. Approaching these intermediate buckets would reflect an expectation of reward under ambiguity – an “optimistic” judgment bias, suggesting positive emotional states. The researchers found cows kept indoors full-time were faster to approach the known rewarded bucket location.

‘More rewarding environment’

Andrew Crump, a postdoctoral researcher from the school of biological sciences at Queen's and lead author of the research paper, said increased reward anticipation suggests that an animal has fewer rewards in its life, "so our results indicate that pasture is a more rewarding environment for dairy cows, which may induce more positive emotional wellbeing than full-time housing".

"Britain and Ireland have mostly resisted the trend towards housing dairy cows indoors full-time," he said.

“We hope that our research encourages farmers, retailers, government and consumers that pasture access is important for cow welfare, and should be protected. In countries where full-time housing is common, we hope that ours and other welfare studies challenge this trend.”

The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute Hillsborough hosted the study. The work was funded by Northern Ireland's Department for the Economy, as well as being a project that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.