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J Anim Sci. 2014 Nov;92(11):5175-84. doi: 10.2527/jas.2014-8046.

Preference and behavior of lactating dairy cows given free access to pasture at two herbage masses and two distances.

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Animal Science Research Centre, Harper Adams University, Newport, Shropshire TF10 8NB, UK.
Animal Science Research Centre, Harper Adams University, Newport, Shropshire TF10 8NB, UK


A number of factors influence dairy cow preference to be indoors or at pasture. The study reported here investigated whether herbage mass and distance affects preference and if continuously housed cows exhibited behavioral and production differences compared to cows that had free access to pasture. Dairy cows (n = 16) were offered a free choice of being in cubicle housing (1.5 cubicles/cow) or at pasture with a high (3,000 ± 200 kg DM/ha) vs. low (1,800 ± 200 kg DM/ha) herbage mass. A control group (n = 16) was confined to cubicle housing for the duration of the study. Each herbage mass was offered at either a near (38 m) or far (254 m) distance in a 2 × 2 factorial crossover design to determine motivation to access pasture. Overall, dairy cows expressed a partial preference to be at pasture, spending 68.7% of their time at pasture. This was not affected (P > 0.05) by herbage mass. Both grass intake (P = 0.001) and grazing time (P = 0.039) was greater when cows were offered the high herbage mass. Neither total mixed ration intake (P > 0.05) nor milk yield (P > 0.05) was affected by herbage mass or distance. Additionally, no interaction existed between herbage mass and distance (P > 0.05). Distance affected preference: overall time on pasture was greater at the near distance (P = 0.002); however, nighttime use was not affected by distance (P = 0.184). Housed cows produced less milk than free-choice cows and this was potentially due to a combination of decreased lying time in housed cows (P < 0.001) and grass intake (1.22 kg/d) in free-choice cows. This study shows that herbage mass is not a major factor driving dairy cow preference for pasture, but distance does affect preference for pasture during the day. Additionally, there are clear production and welfare benefits for providing cows with a choice to be at pasture or cubicle housing over being continuously housed. Further research is necessary to quantify the effect of lying time on milk yields.


access to pasture; behavior; dairy cow; distance; herbage mass; housed

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