Optimising lying comfort for dairy cows (PhD)



For a variety of reasons, all-year-round housing systems are increasing in practice in the UK, and across Europe. However, the public perceive pasture access as positively contributing to dairy cow welfare. Additionally, cows have a preference and are motivated to gain access to pasture. This motivation is unaffected by herbage allowance and is stronger at night, when cows primarily lie down, than during the day. Therefore, it is thought that their motivation to access pasture is driven by the properties it offers cows for lying down. It is unclear what aspects of pasture are attractive to cows for lying down, such as the lying space available, the surface type or being outdoors. If the lying qualities cows’ value at pasture could be identified and applied to the design of indoor housing, some of the welfare concerns around housing dairy cows could be addressed.   

Key findings

  • Cows’ value lying on an open lying space more than a preferred lying surface.
  • Cows are motivated to access an open lying space, with surface type having a minimum effect on this motivation.
  • When provided the same open lying space indoors and outdoors in the autumn, cows do not have a preference nor are they motivated to go outdoors and lie down.
  • This research has identified features of a lying area that are important to cows and show that housed cow welfare could be improved with innovative housing design. 
Project code:
28 July 2014
Project leader:
Harper Adams University/ SRUC

About this project

Aims and objectives 

This research aims to identify different lying qualities that cows value, which may exist at pasture but may be absent in conventional indoor housing. By identifying what aspects of a lying area cow’s value, it is hoped that this research could encourage new innovations in dairy cow housing design and improved housed dairy cow welfare.

This research comprised of a series of three studies using preference and motivation research techniques, allowing the researchers to ‘ask’ cows what they wanted in a lying space.

The first study created a trade-off-preference choice to determine whether lying space or a preferred lying surface was valued more.

The second measured cow motivation to access an open lying area, using walking distance as an indicator of motivation, and was repeated using two different open surface types.

The final study measure cow preference and motivation to access an open lying area outdoors, when the same open lying area was provided indoors.  

Key results

Cows’ value open lying space more than lying surface type, with cows trading lying on their preferred lying surface with a cubicle, restricting lying space, to lie down on a less preferred lying surface without a cubicle, presented as an open lying space.

Additionally, cows are motivated to access an open lying area, by walking long distances for access, when provided free access to cubicles. Surface type had a minimum effect on this motivation, with cows slightly more motivated to access an open straw yard than an open mattress.

When provided the same open lying space indoors and outdoors in the autumn, cows did not show a preference for either lying area. Cows showed a low level of motivation to access the outdoor open lying area when a walking distance was implemented to access it, with cows choosing to lie down more often on the indoor open lying area, which they had free access to. Weather during this time was mild and had a minimum effect on lying times outdoors.