The benefits of an active lifestyle in improving physical and mental health are indisputable. Along with eating healthy foods, increased physical activity has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type II diabetes, and certain cancers. Exercise is also directly linked to improvements in mental health, causing significant reductions in stress, anxiety disorders, depression, and improvements in sleep and recovery.
In short, an active lifestyle is one of the most critical elements to a long and happy life.
What is less well acknowledged, is that these same benefits and concepts are true for other animals, including cows. While the incidence of major chronic disease that afflict humans is not routinely measured in dairy cows, we can, however, look at other health and wellbeing metrics that do benefit directly from a cow’s ability to move freely in wide open spaces.
There are several health-related issues that are of great importance in dairy cows, including, lameness, joint and hip problems, and mastitis (infection of the udder), all of which are generally higher in cows that spend most of their lives standing and lying on hard, dirty surfaces. In fact, a recent study looking at the incidence of lameness in US dairy cows concluded that as many as 20-55% of all cows kept in confined stalls suffer from lameness at some point in their lives1. Lameness, in addition to being a major cause of stress and pain, is also one of the major reasons for a shorter lifespan in dairy cows, due to its major negative impacts on milk production, reproduction, and general overall health. Therefore, it is no surprise that giving cows the opportunity to exercise and graze outdoors in wide open spaces has been shown to significantly reduce lameness rates,2 and this can only mean positive things for their longevity and wellbeing.
In addition to the obvious benefits of exercise on the cow’s physical health, being outdoors is also generally a cleaner environment and this can significantly reduce the cow’s exposure to bacteria and other pathogens. In fact, dairy cows grazing outdoors have been shown to have improved general udder health and cleanliness, and in turn this resulted in much better quality milk3. In this instance, the active outdoor lifestyle is not just better for the cow, but better for the milk.
It is hard to argue that an active, outdoor lifestyle is not just simply better for both the physical health and longevity of dairy cows, but what about mental health?
Again, the frequency of things like stress, depression, and anxiety, are not routinely measured in dairy cattle, or any livestock for that matter, like they are in the human population, but this does not mean that cows aren’t able to, or don’t suffer from these emotional ailments in their own way. In fact, the reduction in “stress” is critical in the animal welfare practices that Hart Dairy employs, and a fundamental aim under our Certified Humane standard.
Cows are social, “herding” animals with a relatively complex social order and need to interact. When this innate need for the company of other cows, and the ability to exhibit normal herd behaviors is denied, then cows become more stressed. Grazing a free-range environment again provides a better opportunity for the cows to practice their normal social behaviors and interact with their herd mates. Like humans, cows have individual personalities and are generally creatures of habit, so a better opportunity to express these attributes generally leads to a healthier herd.
It is no surprise therefore, that grazing outdoors all year round, with the freedom to move and socialize, and a healthy grass-based diet, is just simply better for the cow, and the milk they produce. In the long run, this is better for us humans too.
Espejo, L. A., M. I. Endres, and J. A. Salfer. 2006. Prevalence of lame- ness in high-producing Holstein cows housed in freestall barns in Minnesota. J. Dairy Sci. 89:3052–3058.
Chapinal N. Barrientos A.K. von Keyserlingk M.A.G. Galo E. Weary D.M. Herd-level risk factors for lameness in freestall farms in the northeastern United States and California.J. Dairy Sci. 2013; 96 (23141819): 318-328
Goldberg et al., 1992. The Influence of Intensively Managed Rotational Grazing, Traditional Continuous Grazing, and Confinement Housing on Bulk Tank Milk Quality and Udder Health. J. Dairy Sci. 75:96-104