Why farmers should send lame cows outside

A new study from the UBC Dairy research centre shows that cows with hurt hooves prefer to spend time out of doors, and get better when they do.

By Grace Kennedy | October 28, 2022 |5:00 am

When your hoof hurts, there’s nothing quite like getting outside.

Researchers in Agassiz found that cows with a hoof or leg injury were more likely to recover—and spend longer feeling better—if they had access to pasture.

The study at UBC’s Dairy Centre examined 54 lame Holsteins (i.e. dairy cows who had an abnormal gait). Half of them were housed in a traditional, indoor-only barn. The other half were given access to pasture, as well as the barn.

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Helping cows recover quicker is both better for the cow and their owners, so the research could have important implications for dairy producers across the region. Lameness can significantly decrease the amount of milk a cow can produce, and in 2009 could cost a producer $520 a day for each lame cow.

During the study, the cows were observed over seven weeks. And while less than half of the cows recovered in that time, those with access to pasture fared considerably better.

Researchers found that the Holsteins with access to pasture spent an average of 15% of their time outside, mostly in the evenings when it was cooler. (Some cows were really outdoorsy, spending nearly half their time outside, while others with access to pasture didn’t bother going outside at all.)

The UBC study suggests the softer surface provided by the dirt and grass—and the larger area they had to roam—helped the Holsteins recover quicker. The study showed that cows spent most of their time outside standing up, while more of their time in the barn was spent lying down.

This is similar to how human athletes can recover from an injury. Low- to moderate-intensity workouts are often used to help athletes rebuild their muscles and regain strength after an injury. The same thing is likely true for 1,500 pound cows.

Many dairy farmers keep their cows in indoor-only settings, in part because of challenges in accessing appropriate pasture land, but also because it can be more difficult to ensure cows eat enough high-energy feed to keep milk production up to desired levels. But past UBC research suggested that it is possible to maintain a cow’s diet while increasing their pasture time.

Research that shows doing so could also reduce the costs of lameness could inspire more farmers to look at whether allowing their herds access to pasture is worth some of the challenges.


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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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