Grazing an ideal; good care and housing a duty

Grazing an ideal; good care and housing a duty

In the Netherlands there was a major public discussion about dairy cows not being put into pasture anymore. There is big pressure from the public to let the cows out to graze and initiatives to make this compulsory by law. On invitation, Jan Hulsen wrote this column for the leading Dutch agricultural newspaper Het Agrarisch Dagblad in September 2010.

I find debates about grazing or pasturing extremely difficult.

There are so many factors surrounding and connected with this topic. First of all, the debate turns out not to be about grazing itself, because no-one is against that. It is about the question: should grazing be made compulsory, yes or no?

The next question is: why would you want to make grazing compulsory? “Because it’s better for the cows” comes the answer. “The cows pick up when they’re on grass, and their legs heal.” Eh? Do cows need to go to pasture in order to recover? In this day and age, can’t we build and maintain a barn that keeps cows healthy? After all, the grazing season is only 5 months of the year.

I believe it is entirely possible to keep cows indoors for 7 months without their welfare falling below the line. And if we can do it for 7 months, we can do it for 12… First and foremost, it needs to be quite clear where the line is. So that everyone can see that “basic welfare is not at issue here”. This is an urgent task for agricultural science and extension. After that, anyone who wants to do so can add welfare enhancements. But that needn’t be made compulsory.

tribute to the farmers who have invested in better animal housing

For myself, the minimum level of animal welfare lies at the point where no animal in the group displays physical signs of chronic stress or has injuries caused by its conditions of housing. Animal welfare indoors depends partly on construction features of the house and partly on human decisions, management and handling. A tight cubicle can be a construction feature, but it is a decision not to then turn it into a deep litter cubicle. Over-stocking is a decision. Giving dry cows little room to move is also usually a decision, not an established fact...

We should all pay tribute to the farmers who have invested in better animal housing! Sand cubicles are a good option and are economically very competitive. As are deep litter cubicles with straw/lime mixtures for example. And stress-free straw areas for ‘special needs’ cows. Treatment areas! It will be great if loose housing in compost bedded barns will be an economical and legal option!

Hoof health and injuries

The main sticking points are hoof health and injuries. Until a few years ago, a quarter of Dutch cows on average were lame in February and fewer than 30% had two healthy hind hooves. This is due not to a lack of grazing but to a lack of critical and effective animal management. If the sector tolerates this situation, it is only logical that society should want to make grazing compulsory. Research by the Dutch Animal Health Service shows that hoof health can be easily controlled by good management, because there are plenty of farms performing very well.

Nobody can design a barn that stands up to a farmer who makes bad decisions or lacks in expertise. But on the other hand, a skilled farmer can achieve adequate animal welfare standards in a very limited barn. In the first farmer’s case, grazing benefits the cows enormously. However… grazing also calls for expertise, constant alertness and improvisational skills. Indoors, everything is much more predictable…

Care of animals is first-rate

The general public likes the sight of cows at pasture: they contribute to the value of the rural landscape, the image of the countryside, the acceptance of dairy farming and the appreciation of milk and dairy produce. This is all true. But the sector and the individual farmer have to judge this and work it out for themselves. It is a strategic decision and therefore an individual one, made to a large extent following your heart.

In my view, the point is that every farmer should be able to show every day that the care of his animals is first-rate. And that starts with a healthy housing period. Grazing need not be made compulsory in my opinion, but I do believe that everyone in the sector, not just the individual farmer, should make an effort to provide access to grass for cows on all farms and make pasturing a success. Because healthy cows at pasture is best, after all.

Please let us know what you think, post your comment below. We love feedback, thanks!

Comments (17)

Rob Davies

At our practice in west Wales we see a very diverse range of dairy farming systems, from grass based intensive grazing systems to intensive housed systems and a variety of systems in between.
If we look at different parameters we generally see that indoor cows outperform grazed cows in every aspect, whether you look at health and welfare parameters or production parameters.
Overstocking is not only a problem for indoor systems we also see hugely overstocked grazing systems too.
Indoor cows are generally no more than 20-30 meters from bed, food and water, however, on some farms the cow has to walk 2.4 km (1.5 miles) for grass. That is a 1.5 hours walk to food! Is that what we want? Is that what cows want? We must stop thinking about what we want and we should start thinking about what the cow wants. There was an interesting study done at Harper Adams College recently where they opened the gates and let the cows choose where they wanted to be. Food was offered at the feeding barrier as usual and grass was available in the field. There were water troughs in the shed and in the field. The cows chose to be indoors during the day and out at night. They went out to lie down not to graze, therefore I do not consider grazing to be essential for the cow. In my opinion, what the cow craves for is a comfortable bed at a reasonable temperature with plenty of fresh air and food and water nearby.
If I was a cow and could decide which system I would prefer to live in I would choose the well managed indoor system every time!

E.D. Schutte

For cows starting lactation, until 30 days after calving, pasturing should be forbidden. Most off the time it is to cold, or to hot, to much sun or rain. Good food supply is almost impossible. It's very strange that milk companies pay extra money for milk of grazing cows. It does not make any sense.

Carolina A.

3 years ago we moved into our new barn with 3 milking robots. I loved seeing the cows outside in the spring but as my son said, the cows have better conditions, always the same supply of food inside. Also beforehand we had only turned the cows out in the evening & kept them in during the day. And no they didn't graze much. The lucky cows are the ones who calve between June & November because they get to spend time outside. But are they really the lucky ones? If their housing is the most optimal we can offer then, perhaps they would choose to stay inside as well. we just have to make the general public understand that & sometimes improve our housing. A little more cow-comfort, even if it costs, in the long run you get your money back.

Halbe Rosemaz

Here in France the question whether the cows should be indoor out outdoor is not an issue at all. I use these terms because pasturemanagment is so pour here that grazingcows often have hardly anything to eat. The agreement (weideconvenant) between dutch dairyindustry, retailers and associations for environment and animalwelfare is the worst thing that could happen to the dutch farmers and their cows. The agreement is about what people want and not about what is the best for our cows.
As a hooftrimmer I have to admit that often claws are in better health when cows go out, but I see it on my own cows and at some of my clients that feet and claws can be in a perfect shape even when cows are inside. All depends on the skills and the willing of the farmer to improof the indoor conditions.

Joep Driessen

Great to hear all your comments and ideas, and thanks for also mentioning your country!
Grazing is nice. It is the original way how cows eat...
A walk out for cows, especialy close up dry cows is very welcome.
A walkout is nice for cows... They like the exercise and the space.
Good feeding is a must!
A good soft, dry, big bed is a must too!

For succesfull persuasion it is good to gather excellent arguments and examples. Keep up the good work, thanks for sharing our blog ( includi g your comments) with your network.

Take care out there! Greetings joep

Donald Martin

In New Zealand we can graze cows on pasture very effectively for nearly 12 months of the year. I run a small business in Southland that measures grass dry matter and covers, We have the technology available to us to do this type of monitoring very cost effectively. It is not difficult to measure up to 1000 ha per day collecting quality data. The catch is that this discussion is driven by animal welfare not actual per cow production. My concern here is the word compulsory no farmer in the world wants their live stock stressed by any management system. Why not have a balance of the two management systems work them together. Cows grazing on pasture will or should be in a low cost operation. The input costs should be more than adequate to make up for lower per cow milk production if any. Unfortunately what I read is this is all about what the wider public see should happen not necessary how an individual farmer wants to operate. Feeding cows on pasture is not all bad fortunately I can make a living because they do

Christina Risley-Curtiss

So this is about money it seems. The cows chose to be outside at night tells you something--they may want to be outside not in a 'well-managed barn' for life. And so I ask Rob you would prefer to live in a well managed house all your life-never going outside? Exercise is good, playing is good, nature is good. When did we evolve to the point that everything needs to be caged. Animal welfare should include emotional not just physical well being. Yes I realize all pastures and all climates are not the same I also can't fathom the idea of being locked in a barn my whole life. Can you? I grew up with cows and saw full sized cows running and bucking--just as my horse does. Can they do that in your barns? Do they want to?

jonathan amir

israel is a hot country so we have no grazing and the cows spend all there time in a barn.to give the cows the best living conditions we have barns that the roof opens and we give 20meters of space for every cow and the side of the barn is open.there are new ideas for improveing barns all the time and new barns going up and old barns comming down and we see that the cows improve when they move into the new barns.it is very important for the sucsses of the the farm to keep improving the living standers of the cows.

Hafiz wasi Khan

Animal grazing has been traditional practice in the history right from time we see recorded history...As population pressure on land increased people started find other ways also to increase revenues from the same land through different technologies available in agriculture. At the same the target shifted from only healthy animals to higher production from the same animals, the farmers and scientists found a new slogan of COW COMFORT through zero based grazing or stall fed cattle farming...This system not only increased production/head but also helped animals to keep away animals from many diseases therefore grazing system will b practiced only where rain fed grazing land will b available and farmers will have no option to grow high value horticulture from the same piece of land....since the process of change is longer and difficult people will keep on arguing in favour traditional grazing system but ultimately every one will adopt zero based grazing system

Amy Jackson

I heard you speak at the CoBo conference Jan. I would be interested to know the distribution of lameness by system. Yes you may get more lameness in cows inside - but is that in cows housed for just the winter period where there is a reliance on the summer grazing period to remedy this? The standard of housing for cows inside for only the winter can be poorer because the owner is having to split his investments between housing infrastructure and grazing infrastructure. So saying there is higher lameness in housed cows can be misleading. I would also agree that it is easier to get welfare wrong in a housed system, but many are getting it right with superb comfort, space and opportunities for cows to express natural behaviours. This means there is probably a wider range of welfare outcomes in fully housed systems.

Joep Driessen

Amy Jackson wrote:
I heard you speak at the CoBo conference Jan. I would be interested to know the distribution of lameness by system. Yes you may get more lameness in cows inside - but is that in cows housed for just the winter period where there is a reliance on the summer grazing period to remedy this? The standard of housing for cows inside for only the winter can be poorer because the owner is having to split his investments between housing infrastructure and grazing infrastructure. So saying there is higher lameness in housed cows can be misleading. I would also agree that it is easier to get welfare wrong in a housed system, but many are getting it right with superb comfort, space and opportunities for cows to express natural behaviours. This means there is probably a wider range of welfare outcomes in fully housed systems.

Hi Amy,

Yes you are right! Big variety in lameness in year round housing systems: from excellent till disastrous....
Probably 80 % of cow houses are too bad to house cows. So 3-6 months winter is already killing the cow!!!
20 % is ok. Only 1 % = excellent with 6 lactations.....!
What to do?
Improve buildings: soft beds, more feed space (70 cm per cow), air light water and space. Look for cheap opportunities first!

Want to learn more: come 8-11 dec or 12-25 june in holland!

Harmen Heesen

Indoors when you have to out doors when you can is a term I often use for my clients in NZ. If you set up for pasture management and you grow lots of grass its a matter of utilising that grass. In bad weather grass and soils turn to mush and cows suffer (just standing in the rain and wind does nothing for animal welfare or production) Often the public is guided by sunny daisy pictures and does not see the reality day to day.
Housing does not make a bad farmer good, but will make an good farmer excellent, same for cows. Management of cows housed often results more attention to detail as cows can be seen and noticed. In our NZ larger farm systems often attention to detail gets lost in large herds. Cows walking 10 Km a day does nothing for production, NZ average is way under 400 Kg MS / year/ cow, milking average 270-280 days is common.Latent ability for the cows to produce more and have a healthier longer life can only be achieved by a Hybrid system. Seeing many herds in the mud for days or weeks on end is not something which aligns with "consumer values" In NZ Urinating cows are the greatest polluters to our water ways, our soils have little "containment capacity"
So if we want clean and green the consumer needs to understand cause and affect... its up to "us" as an industry to inform and educate the public. Pictures of daisy on a sunny day on a milk carton is not doing that very well.

Nathan Stewart

In response to Harmen's comment I personally think he is right on the money. A housed system set up and managed with every detail taken care of to the highest degree, the cows and the farms are in a very healthy and productive state. One farm in particular run their cows inside 365 days of the year with Lely robots and they are nearly at the 600Kg/MS per cow. If we want to have healthy farms and healthy cows we need to consider the real facts.

Joep Driessen

I see the reactions keep coming in. Great to read what you all think, thanks for posting!

Stuart Russell

Grazing doesn't make up for substandard housing or care. Excellent housing and care can (for me) make up for lack of grazing.

For me, the welfare of either system depends on the facilities, compassion and attention to detail of staff. Either can be excellent, and either atrocious. Dairy cow welfare depends on farm, not system.

The economics of high-input herds require (true) marginal milk to be maximised to dilute fixed and maintenance feed costs, which makes investments in cow health, comfort and skilled staff an easy decision, as this removes restrictions imposed on milk production. Unfortunately, as Amy suggested, the economics of low-input systems require reduced costs, as there is little potential to increase yields without further increasing maintenance feed costs. This means investment in facilities, staff and sometimes even cow health must rely on the compassion of the farmer, and the money he has to spare. This conflict makes me uncomfortable, and I would hate to be a farmer put in that position.

Let's get the facilities perfect on either system, then offer grazing where appropriate. Unfortunately I suspect the cost of maximising comfort in housing won't leave many grazing herds profitable. A compromise could be exercise paddocks for indoor cows, but these would take some difficult management (& likely no grass!) in many climates to maintain welfare and minimise disease!

Stuart Russell

Apologies. I should have said I'm from the UK.

Joep Driessen

Stuart Russell wrote:
Grazing doesn't make up for substandard housing or care. Excellent housing and care can (for me) make up for lack of grazing.

For me, the welfare of either system depends on the facilities, compassion and attention to detail of staff. Either can be excellent, and either atrocious. Dairy cow welfare depends on farm, not system.

The economics of high-input herds require (true) marginal milk to be maximised to dilute fixed and maintenance feed costs, which makes investments in cow health, comfort and skilled staff an easy decision, as this removes restrictions imposed on milk production. Unfortunately, as Amy suggested, the economics of low-input systems require reduced costs, as there is little potential to increase yields without further increasing maintenance feed costs. This means investment in facilities, staff and sometimes even cow health must rely on the compassion of the farmer, and the money he has to spare. This conflict makes me uncomfortable, and I would hate to be a farmer put in that position.

Let's get the facilities perfect on either system, then offer grazing where appropriate. Unfortunately I suspect the cost of maximising comfort in housing won't leave many grazing herds profitable. A compromise could be exercise paddocks for indoor cows, but these would take some difficult management (& likely no grass!) in many climates to maintain welfare and minimise disease!

Thanks for your thoughts Russell!

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