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Who Lets The Cows Out?

RSPCA Assured’s website manager, Jodie, interviews Holly the RSPCA’s scientific officer and ruminants specialist about a surprising cow behaviour.

The Dancing Cows Of Denmark

Did you know that in Denmark, the third Sunday in April is informally known as ‘Dancing Cow Day’? I was fascinated to find out that at midday on this happy day, Danish cows are let out of their barns for the spring and summer to graze on the luscious green grass. The event is so exciting for the cows that they ‘dance’ with joy - leaping, running and bucking their way out to pasture. 

Dancing Cow Day, or Okodag, marks the start of the outdoor season for Danish organic cows. Hoards of people gather to watch the spectacle and enjoy the sight of hundreds of happy dancing cows.

Do Cows in the UK Dance Too? 

I asked Holly, the RSPCA’s ruminant specialist about this dancing phenomenon and if we could see the same behaviour in cows in the UK.

“The cows running, jumping and kicking up their hind legs mimics play behaviour in calves and it does look like dancing! This seems to be a reaction to the novelty of being let outdoors after being kept inside for the winter months.

Access to pasture allows cows to carry out natural behaviours like grazing, and lying stretched out, as well as potentially reducing negative social interactions, and giving them greater freedom of movement than indoor housing.

It is essential that cows are given plenty of outdoor access and as such dairy cows on RSPCA Assured farms cannot be kept permanently indoors. A cow that lives inside all the time is more likely to show serious health issues such as lameness, udder infections and leg damage.”

How Does The RSPCA Decide How Long Dairy Cows Should Be Outside?

The RSPCA has strict welfare standards for each farmed animal species. Farms that are members of the RSPCA Assured scheme agree to care for their animals in line with these standards. For dairy cows, these high welfare standards have detailed, farm-specific calculations to determine the minimum number of days that the cows on a farm must be provided access to pasture. I asked Holly for more details on this. 

This important calculation takes into account various factors, including the local climate and the time of year to determine the minimum number of days the cows should be outside. Using this method, our RSPCA Assured member farms would need to provide their cattle with access to pasture for at least 110 days per year. 

Sometimes cows do need to be kept inside due to adverse weather conditions - living in the UK, we all know that bad weather can keep you stuck inside! Cows are no different and it’s not a bad thing if a dairy cow is kept inside to protect her from the elements, but when the conditions are right they should have suitable access to pasture. 

The latest RSPCA welfare standards for dairy cattle state that dairy cows must have access to pasture for at least four hours (ideally six) per day during the grazing season.”

Does Being Part Of RSPCA Assured Improve Dairy Cow Welfare?

The RSPCA welfare standards do much more than calculate grazing time, there are more than 300 standards that have to be met before the milk can be labelled RSPCA Assured. These standards cover a dairy cow’s entire life with health and comfort at their heart. 

All RSPCA Assured dairy farms receive annual assessments by specially trained assessors to ensure the RSPCA’s strict welfare standards are being met and they may also receive additional unannounced checks.

Not All Cows Get To Dance

Sadly not all dairy cows get to spend time grazing and dancing out to fields. A dancing cow day is a thing of the past for many dairy herds. It is an increasing trend in the UK that cows have limited time outside. Some never go outside at all. This intensive farming - often referred to as factory farming, focuses on maximising production and keeping costs low to produce cheap meat, eggs and dairy - cannot meet the welfare needs of farmed animals. We are working hard alongside the RSPCA to see an end to intensive farming and want to see all animals cared for to the RSPCA’s higher welfare standards so they can lead better lives.

Many Cows Are Now ‘Zero Grazed’

Holly talked to me about the increasing trend for zero grazing, something I found really upsetting to hear. 

“Zero grazing’ is unfortunately an increasingly common term applied to how some dairy cows are now fed in the industry. 

It means that cows are not let out to graze grass, but instead, they are brought freshly cut grass to eat to improve their milk yield. Although this refers to a specific type of feeding practice, rather than if they are kept inside or outside - in reality, the term is often associated with cows that never go outside to graze and are kept permanently indoors.”

How Can You Support RSPCA Assured Milk and Dairy Cows?

We are proud to say that all Marks and Spencer fresh milk is now RSPCA Assured. If you spot the RSPCA Assured label you can be reassured that the milk comes from cows who have access to the outdoors to graze during the summer months. And when they are indoors, cows will be given plenty of space, comfortable bedding to lie down on, and they must also be provided with environmental enrichment such as cow brushes so they can groom themselves. 

By choosing to buy RSPCA Assured, you will help to encourage more retailers to stock higher welfare products such as milk and this, in turn, will give more dairy cows the opportunity to ‘dance’ their way out to pasture and live better lives. Can’t see the logo in your local supermarket? Why not lobby your supermarket to stock RSPCA Assured higher welfare produce?

About the author

Jodie - Website Manager

Jodie is RSPCA Assured's Website Manager. 

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