Cows value a scratch as much as feed: Study

Prairie Post (West Edition) - - Agriculture -

Ev­ery­one knows the sat­is­fac­tion of hav­ing an itch scratched and re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia say cows ap­pear to feel the same way.

A study from the an­i­mal wel­fare pro­gram at the school found dairy cows want to use a scratch­ing brush just as much as they want to ac­cess fresh feed.

The pro­gram’s Prof. Ma­rina von Key­ser­lingk, one of six co-au­thors of the re­port, said in na­ture, cows are out­side and use trees and other abra­sive sur­faces to scratch them­selves. But when they’re kept in a barn, scratch­ing is al­most im­pos­si­ble.

A scratch­ing brush looks sim­i­lar to a small bris­tled roller in a car wash. When the an­i­mal steps into or un­der the brush, it au­to­mat­i­cally be­gins rolling.

While re­searchers found that the cows liked us­ing the brush for an av­er­age of seven min­utes a day, they weren’t sure how im­por­tant it was to get that scratch.

The re­searchers used a preference test for the cows and it showed they were will­ing to push through a weighted bar­rier to gain ac­cess to the brush just as much as they were will­ing to push through for fresh feed, von Key­ser­lingk said.

“You know what it’s like to have an itch in those hard-to-get places,” she said. “So this al­lows them to re­ally groom those hard-to-get places.”

Von Key­ser­lingk said they found the brush ap­peared to help the cat­tle re­duce stress.

“For me, what I also think about is if she’s su­per itchy and she can’t al­le­vi­ate that itch, it could be that she could be re­ally frus­trated,” she said. “We don’t know what a frus­trated cow nec­es­sar­ily looks like, be­cause we haven’t re­ally looked in this con­text, but it could ac­tu­ally im­prove her emo­tional state.”

Pub­lished in the jour­nal Bi­ol­ogy Let­ters on Wed­nes­day, the study says in some coun­tries, in­clud­ing Den­mark, pro­vid­ing cows with ac­cess to re­sources that pro­mote coat care is manda­tory.

“Cat­tle with ac­cess to me­chan­i­cal brushes are clean and spend about five­fold more time groom­ing com­pared with when brushes are not avail­able, sug­gest­ing that these brushes are im­por­tant to the cow,” the study says.

“I think brushes should be part of stan­dard man­age­ment prac­tice, stan­dard hous­ing sys­tems,” von Key­ser­lingk said.

She said they aren’t sure why the cows like to groom them­selves. It could be to get rid of dirt or, just like most mam­mals, they get itchy once in a while.

In the past, sci­ence has tended to fo­cus on an­i­mal wel­fare by look­ing at all an­i­mals, but von Key­ser­lingk said that this study looks deeper.

“We know that not all an­i­mals are iden­ti­cal and so I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in this in­di­vid­ual vari­a­tion. Be­cause it’s the in­di­vid­ual an­i­mal that has the abil­ity to suf­fer. So look­ing at these types of things, we can get a bet­ter in­sight into in­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences.”

She couldn’t say that if a farmer added the brushes to their barn, they might have an in­crease in milk pro­duc­tion, but the cat­tle could be more com­fort­able.

“I think that there’s a grow­ing body of ev­i­dence now that hav­ing these brushes is good for the cows,” von Key­ser­lingk said.

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