It’s easy to see why cows love pasture: lush grass, fresh air, plenty of space to amble around… Organic farmers have held pasture as a cornerstone of their farming practice since ‘organic’ labels started sneaking into early food co-ops. But even before the distinction between conventional and organic agriculture (when “farming” automatically meant organic farming because chemicals weren’t even an option), farmers observed their cows gleefully heading out to pasture.
There’s plenty of information about how cows that are allowed to cultivate “al fresco” hobbies, like grazing, frolicking and enjoying fresh air, produce better butter, healthier steaks, and contribute to thriving ecosystems. But this research focuses mainly on the benefits of grass-based agriculture for us — humans. The cows’ presumed happiness was seen as an added bonus.
So how highly do cows themselves value the great outdoors?
There’s now research on that.
A new study funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada scientifically confirms what organic farmers have been saying all along: Access to pasture is very important to cows. In fact, this study found that time outside is every bit as important to dairy cows as fresh feed—a result that surprised even the researchers.
Here’s what they did.
Dairy cows were given access first to fresh feed and then to pasture, each by way of a weighted gate. The amount of weight on the gate was increased daily until the cows were no longer willing to push it open to get to their desired food. The greater the weight they were willing to move, the more important it was to the cows. Trials were conducted immediately after milking when cows are most motivated to eat.
Researchers hypothesized that they “expected pasture to be valuable to the cows, but not as valuable as access to the fresh feed.”
Turns out, they were wrong.
Instead, researchers found that a majority of cows—59% to be precise—pushed just as hard or harder to access pasture as they did to access fresh feed.
Notably, these cows had fresh feed inside their barn while they were being tested for motivation to access pasture. This told the researchers the cows were not pushing toward pasture out of hunger, but rather out of a desire to be outside.
For your average bovine, time spent outdoors in a nice, soft, grassy paddock is more enticing than a bucket of readily available feed.
Now, watch some happy cows jump for joy to see their pasture!