April 28 2022 08:00 AM

Consumer expectations and farmer responses to this question don’t always match, but their opinion may give us something to think about.

If you asked the average dairy consumer on the street where cows live, what would their answer be?

Three years ago, at the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council symposium we did just this with a panel of four average consumers. When we asked the panel this question, they answered, “On pasture.” They were astonished when the dairyman in the audience said that cows spend most of their time in the barn. As dairyman, our initial reaction is to scoff at this answer. We know what is best for our cows and we should educate these consumers.

But what if, instead of asking consumers, we asked the cows what they wanted? Bear with me  I’m not going to go Dr. Doolittle here. Instead, let’s look at the science.

A particular type of study, called a preference study, makes an animal work for what it wants to see how hard it is willing to work to get something or go somewhere. In a preference study done several years ago by the University of British Columbia using heavy gates, the cows were willing to work as hard to get out to pasture as they were for fresh feed. This study has since been repeated in multiple different formats, each time with similar results.

I imagine many dairymen would still say a cow gets better care in the barn. But maybe this study has got you thinking, if cows show a preference for pasture, maybe we should put them on pasture at least for a short time. If you are one of those individuals looking over the gate at greener pastures, then we have the conference for you!

This year at the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council Symposium to be held May 18 and 19 in Syracuse, N.Y., we have scheduled a series of talks on the welfare of dairy cattle on pasture. The conversation starts with Gareth Arnott, who will summarize the current research on dairy welfare in pasture-based systems. This will be followed by two dairy producers, Dan Rice of Prairieland Dairy and Anne Phillips of Triple 3 Livestock, providing their real-world experience running purely pasture based dairy systems in the United States.

The goal of these talks is the same as our goal for all DCWC events, which is to foster conversation and to learn from one another. For more information about the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council or the annual symposium, visit dcwcouncil.org.

Meggan Hain

Meggan Hain, D.V.M., is a veterinarian and animal welfare specialist working for a dairy cooperative in Wisconsin. She is passionate about dairy farming and dairy cattle welfare and is putting that passion into action as the president-elect of the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council.