Crump, A., Jenkins, K., Bethell, E. J. et al. 2021. Optimism and pasture access in dairy cows. Scientific Reports 11(1), 4882.
Allowing dairy cattle to access pasture can promote natural behaviour and improve their health. However, the psychological benefits are poorly understood. We compared a cognitive indicator of emotion in cattle either with or without pasture access. In a crossover experiment, 29 Holstein–Friesian dairy cows had 18 days of overnight pasture access and 18 days of full-time indoor housing. To assess emotional wellbeing, we tested cows on a spatial judgement bias task. Subjects learnt to approach a rewarded bucket location, but not approach another, unrewarded bucket location. We then presented cows with three “probe” buckets intermediate between the trained locations. Approaching the probes reflected an expectation of reward under ambiguity—an “optimistic” judgement bias, suggesting positive emotional states. We analysed the data using linear mixed-effects models. There were no treatment differences in latency to approach the probe buckets, but cows approached the known rewarded bucket slower when they had pasture access than when they were indoors full-time. Our results indicate that, compared to cattle housed indoors, cattle with pasture access display less anticipatory behaviour towards a known reward. This reduced reward anticipation suggests that pasture is a more rewarding environment, which may induce more positive emotional states than full-time housing.