How much time should dairy cows spend outside?

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

How much freedom should cows have? Image Source: Getty Images/DaydreamsGirl
How much freedom should cows have? Image Source: Getty Images/DaydreamsGirl

Related tags Free range Dairy Animal welfare

To have a fulfilling life, cows arguably must be allowed outside. But what constitutes a ‘free-range’ cow is ambiguous. For optimum welfare, farmers must balance time outdoors and time indoors.

While dairy cows usually spend at least some of the time out of doors, the amount of time this is varies greatly depending on the farm, and the cow, in question.

There are a number of reasons for this. On the one hand, keeping them indoors can sometimes be beneficial, as it shields them from bad weather and allows the farmer greater control over their diet. On the other hand, one reason to keep them indoors is simply to increase yields.

How much should cows spend outside, and how can farmers reassure consumers that they are allowing their livestock to enjoy pasture?

Why are cows kept indoors?

Cows must be kept indoors for a certain amount of time each year, although this amount of time is not set in stone. The reasons that they need to go inside are to boost yield for the farmers, and look after the health of the cow.

Diet is also key, and grass is not always adequate. “Although grass may look the same when you're looking over the hedge, the reality is the quality of the nutrition in the grass is variable at different times of the year, so that can have an influence,” Paul Tompkins, diary board chair at the UK’s National Farmers’ Union, told FoodNavigator.

“Modern high-yielding dairy cows have been bred to produce very large volumes of milk – meaning they have very high energy requirements. Therefore they need additional, concentrated feed. That’s a key argument for keeping them indoors – to control diet and in turn production and body condition,” a spokesperson for the organisation Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) added.

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Cows must be kept inside during the winter months for their own welfare. Image Source: Getty Images/deimagine

“Grass is variable in quality - when poor, they can lose condition. To keep a cow high yielding requires a balance between energy and fibre (balancing digestive issues vs loss of condition), hence the closely prescribed TMR (feed). Of course, you could give them access to both grazing and TMR and the cows would fine tune the diet even better.”

However, the CIWF stressed that “we argue that cows should not be as high yielding, and they should be able to be kept outdoors when weather conditions allow, and obtain their energy requirements from their natural diet of pasture.”

The weather also means that having cows outdoors can sometimes be problematic, especially during the more rainy parts of the year. “Cows are pretty heavy animals. They can weigh over half a tonne. They tend to sink if the ground if the ground gets wet," Tompkins told us.

“There are a number of different things that farmers have to balance in their head around the decision whether the cows are being given access to their paddock or to their bar.”

Dairies tend to keep cows inside to increase margins, a spokesperson for the certification Pasture for Life told us. “Many dairies are working to very tight margins and often take a view that increasing output and simplification of the system will help them to increase those margins. The intensification of dairy systems is generally reliant on that simplification and one way to increase control in the system is to house animals and bring feed to them,” they said.

Why consumers are turning away from dairy

Consumer interest in dairy is on the decline​. Various surveys have linked this to growing concerns around animal welfare. Environmental concerns also play a role, with many consumers wanting to reduce their environmental impact by switching to alternatives. 

In terms of regulation, Tompkins told us, none exists on how much time a cow should spend outdoors. “Those decisions need to be made by the farmer, not by a piece of paper,” he added.

Certified ‘free-range’ cows?

In the UK, there are a few small-scale certifications that ensure cows are given enough access to the outdoors. One of the most well-known is the RSPCA Assured scheme, which aims to ensure that livestock are raised by strict welfare standards, including, for cows, a good amount of access to pasture. Farms carrying the label are regularly assessed to ensure compliance.

For dairy cows, these welfare standards include: plenty of space, and enough bedding to lie down in; enough space to prevent competition with other cows; being allowed outside to graze in summer; environmental enrichment in housing such as cow brushes to groom themselves; and a review of any health problems they have at least four times a year.

In terms of the time they have access to pasture, it must be at least four hours a day, ideally six, and 110 days a year. “Under the RSPCA welfare standards, dairy cows must be provided with access to pasture whenever the conditions are suitable. The standards set out a farm specific calculation to determine the minimum number of days that the cows on a farm must be provided access to pasture. This takes into account various factors, including the local climate and time of year to determine the minimum number of days the cows’ should be outside,” a spokesperson for RSPCA Assured told us.

Red Tractor certification provides minimum on space given to cows

In terms of the space given to cows when they are inside, the Red Tractor certification ensures that cows have a minimum space to move around in. For example, cows under 600kg must have cubicles of a minimum of 2.4m by 1.15m, and above 600kg a cubicle of 2.5 by 1.20. When loose grazing, dairy cows must have eight metres squared per head for cows between 400-499kg, all the way up to 11 metres squared per head for cows over 800kg.

"However, cow welfare is always the priority and adverse weather conditions, such as an intensely hot or very wet period, can be justification for not meeting the expected number of grazing days. Overall, the climate and time of year will determine the total number of days available for them to go out.” As of yesterday, there are 60 dairy cattle members of this scheme.

Another, smaller certification is Pasture for Life. While focusing largely on the types of feeds that a cow should be given, it also specifies that a cow must be taken inside and housed only on a limited number of conditions, including: over-wintering periods when grazed plants are not growing; when there are conditions likely to lead to soil damage; when the conditions are a risk to the cow’s welfare; and when farmers need to align with community or national requirements on animal biosecurity. As of now, only 12 dairies are certified with the scheme.

Can cows be ‘free range’?

There is no clear-cut official definition of ‘free range’ cows, as most cows are let outside for certain periods of time, and all cows are kept indoors during the winter months.

“There are a number of anecdotal definitions being used by some in the dairy industry, and others which are based on the number of days that the animals must spend outside (typically these periods range from 100 to 180 days),” the RSPCA Assured spokesperson told us.

“Some specify that cows should go out for as many days during the year as possible, and others require the cows to go out to pasture during the day and night, except at the time of being milked or when needing to be temporarily housed for health reasons.

"This lack of a clear, universally agreed definition of ‘free range’, makes it difficult to differentiate clearly between ‘free range’ and normal industry practice, where in the majority of cases cows are provided with access to pasture during the traditional grazing season of the spring, summer and early autumn months.”

It is vital to cows’ health to be kept indoors at some points, the organisation suggested. “Almost all of the cows that have access to pasture, even those whose products are labelled as ‘free range’, are housed for a significant number of months during the year, which is a period that can have a significant impact on their welfare if the facilities are inadequate.”

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