Space exploration for higher welfare (April 22)

Greater understanding of animal behaviour will help producers meet their herds’ needs to exhibit natural behaviour.


The need for cows to ‘exhibit normal behaviour’ is a requirement that can be overlooked as producers strive to increase herd welfare and comfort on their units. This is, to some extent, due to a lack of awareness, but it’s also due, in part, to a shortage of on-farm solutions. Yet incorporating more environmental enrichment into dairy systems can contribute significantly to meeting these needs.

“Environmental enrichment is used extensively in zoos,” says Bridgwater and Taunton College’s Adam George. “And it can also be used on dairy farms to contribute to a high level of farm animal welfare and positively impacts production,” he adds.

There are five main categories of environmental enrichment: nutritional, physical, sensory, occupational, and social. Some enrichment practices are a combination of these categories.

Nutritional enrichment involves presenting food using a range of different delivery methods or different types of feeders. Varying the time of day for feeding is often used in zoos as it reduces anticipatory behaviour, and there are examples of nutritional enrichment being used effectively on dairy units. “If a calf is fed via a teat rather than a bucket, for example, the incidence of cross-sucking is significantly reduced,” says Dr George. “This can also help to reduce the spread of disease associated with direct contact between the calves. And decreasing the flow of milk through a teat or leaving the teat in place following feeding, will certainly reduce unwanted sucking behaviour in calves.”

Automatic milk feeders also allow calves to exhibit more natural feeding behaviour and can reduce cross-sucking if calves are fed little and often, by stimulating their sucking behaviour throughout the day.

Reduce competition

“Producers know that providing adequate feed space will reduce competition and aggression in cows,” says Dr George. “Less well known is that this can also be considered as a form of enrichment.”

In order to stay healthy and productive, cows need an appropriate physically-enriched environment. Cows need adequate space to carry out normal behaviours such as bulling, for example. “Automatic milking systems could be seen as beneficial because they allow cows to choose when they want to be milked. This is ‘enriching’ and provides cows with a level of control within their environment.”

Another example of physical enrichment includes the provision of hanging balls for calves, which encourage more play behaviour. Sensory enrichment can already be found on many UK dairy units, although this may be unintentional. Studies have shown that playing music at milking time results in quicker entry and milk let-down compared to when no music is played. Dr George says this is probably because music lowers levels of stress – for the cows and the milker – because music has a calming effect.

Cows and calves also benefit from the tactile nature of brushes, and there is evidence that they are highly motivated to use them – so much so that queues often form on units that have them. Research has also shown that brushes can help to increase milk yield and reduce mastitis incidence.

Occupational enrichment relates to the psychological and mental (cognitive) needs of animals. Wild animals encounter a wide range of issues, which they need to overcome to survive. As farm animals have been domesticated, it could be said there’s no need for this stimulation. But some dairy experts believe cows can gain from ‘cognitive tasks’. Social learning, for example, can be beneficial for cattle.

“On regrouping calves at weaning, calves that were previously group-reared tend to find their feed quicker than individually reared calves,” says Dr George. “This is probably because group-reared calves can watch and learn from others, whereas individually reared calves do not necessarily have this learning opportunity. This comparative slowness can result in greater growth checks for individually reared calves at weaning.” Exercise is also an important aspect of occupational enrichment. “The right environment can promote exercise,” he says. “Housing calves in larger pens, for example, will encourage play behaviour, which is a positive indicator of welfare. Exercise in dairy cows can also reduce lameness and mastitis,” he adds.

Social enrichment is also beneficial to cow welfare. Social buffering, defined as the capacity of social companions to kerb or reduce the impact of stress on an individual, has been found in many species. The influence of social buffering is apparent during separation in cattle. For instance, they are less stressed when separated with a member of their cohort than when they are separated with an unfamiliar animal. Regrouping cattle with familiar animals may reduce stress and aggression so, for example, introducing a group into a herd is preferable to introducing individual cattle.

“Calves that are socially housed during their first eight weeks of life are likely to have higher feed and growth rates, be less stressed at weaning, and less fearful of new situations, such as being handled in a race,” says Dr George.

Providing enrichment for farm animals can benefit their welfare and productivity. “Sharing examples of enrichment will also promote a positive message to the consumer and further highlight the high-welfare standards in place on UK dairy units.”

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