As a psychology student at Harvard University, Jennifer Van Os studied people with Alzheimer’s disease. Animals and agriculture were far from her mind. But she realized that, while the research for her honor’s thesis could improve understanding of the human brain, it wouldn’t directly help patients. She longed to do something that would have more immediate, real-world impacts.
Van Os pivoted toward business after graduation and moved to Los Angeles to gain management experience. Then the 2008 election season arrived, and with it came a battle over a ballot initiative that gripped her: Proposition 2.
“It wasn’t the first piece of state legislation that promoted farm animal welfare, but it was a landmark one,” Van Os remembers. “It painted the story of agriculture as very profit-driven and not doing right by the animals. The opposition didn’t refute that in a clean way. They talked around the animal, about food safety, economics, and ‘this is going to drive ag out of the state.’ They didn’t address treating animals right or wrong. It got me thinking: Is there a way to evaluate, scientifically, what is the right thing for the animal?”
It inspired Van Os to challenge her perceptions of animal welfare by returning to research.
She enrolled in the animal behavior graduate program at the University of California, Davis, where she studied heat stress on dairy cows and methods for cooling them. After postdoctoral research at the University of British Columbia, she came to UW–Madison, where she is an assistant professor of dairy science and an extension specialist. She has been meeting with farmers across the state to better understand and anticipate their concerns and needs.
“It’s a dream come true to be in the Dairy State working on this topic,” Van Os says. “Wisconsin is a dairy researcher’s paradise because there are such strong ties between alumni and others who support the university.”
What exactly is animal welfare?
One really important distinction is that “animal welfare” is not “animal rights.” At the most extreme end, people who believe in animal rights think we shouldn’t be managing animals for any purpose — biomedical research, food production, pets. The foundation of what I do is accepting there are systems where we keep animals for our uses. So, how do we make sure they have the best lives possible? Animals should be treated responsibly. They do experience pain and emotions. We need to be aware of that, try to promote good welfare, and minimize poor welfare within the context of human uses.
A common framework uses three overlapping areas to represent different concerns people have about animal welfare: the animal’s physical health; affective state, or the animal’s emotional or psychological experience; and naturalness, the animal’s ability to express important, species-specific behaviors.
Why is animal welfare important for Wisconsin’s dairy industry?
Animal welfare isn’t a trend. It’s really integral to the sustainability of food animal production, especially dairy. You need public buy-in to continue to operate. It’s not just about being economically viable today. Do you have a bank of public trust to make sure you can continue to sell your product in the future, that people will find your product palatable not just in the literal sense? Do they feel good about what they’re buying?
Consumers place a lot of value on an animal’s ability to move around, interact, and not be restricted. It’s important to listen to public concerns and understand the values behind those concerns, but we need science to understand what’s important to the animal. Solutions require a biological understanding of what’s appropriate for the species.
As an extension specialist, it is very important to me that the questions I work on are bringing value to dairy stakeholders. This can be challenging because production is sometimes welfare-neutral: If you have conditions leading to poor animal welfare, you can see decreases in production, but not always. If you improve animal welfare, it doesn’t always lead to a boost in production. It’s a great win-win when those two things go together. But I also think it’s often just the right thing to do.
What are some common misconceptions about dairy cow welfare, and how can greater biological understanding help address them?
In North America, we’ve selectively bred dairy cows to produce the greatest outputs for the least inputs because that’s better economically and for environmental impact. They are like endurance athletes. They’re working so hard to produce milk, and that also produces a lot of body heat. People have this idea that cows should be outside frolicking in the sunshine. But they gain heat from solar radiation, and they’re already feeling really hot even in conditions we find pleasant. When we give high-producing cows the choice, they prefer the barn if conditions are extreme. At the same time, they like to go outside at night, not necessarily to graze but to lie down.
Lying down is super important to cows. Research out of Denmark gave cows a trade-off between lying down and accessing food after deprivation from both. Even when they’re hungry, they would rather lie down — 12 to 13 hours a day. This gets at the naturalness aspect of animal welfare, but it also overlaps into the other two aspects. If cows are prevented from lying down enough, it can lead to negative affective
states, such as frustration and pain, but also lameness, a serious physical health issue.
It’s not about what we would enjoy but understanding what state that animal is in and how their environment affects them. Animals can’t answer us in words, but if we ask the question in the right way we can give them a voice.
What are you researching at Rosy-Lane Holsteins in Watertown, Wisconsin?
Soaking cows with water in the summer is a pretty common technique. It lowers body temperature and increases milk production and feed intake. But there’s potential for water waste, and cows avoid being sprayed on their heads. At Rosy-Lane, instead of nozzles running on a timer over a feed bunk or holding pen, they have a shower mounted over each stall in the milking parlor, angled so that it just sprays their body. I really liked that it was an idea Rosy-Lane came up with themselves and spent years troubleshooting. They put it into practice inside a very successful operation. I really wanted to test and quantify how effective it is.
Also, they have two barn types — naturally and mechanically ventilated — so I wanted to compare cows from both barns milked in the same parlor. The study also allows me to integrate extension with research and give feedback to the farm that could help them learn more about how their cows are responding.
What are you going to research next?
I’m really interested in social housing — groups or pairs — for calves. Decades ago, the idea was to separate calves to reduce calf-to-calf disease transmission. But recent studies have shown there are other ways to mitigate that risk and lots of benefits to social housing. It helps their cognitive development, making them less fearful of new things. It’s good for future productivity and their development and welfare. Cows experience a lot of new things in their lives: larger groups, new pens, and new feed items. You want weaning to be as low stress as possible for calves because otherwise their growth and weight gains can go backward.
I’m interested in how producers can do this without large infrastructure investments. You could simply put hutches side by side and a fence around them. We have research questions about how feed should be delivered and how social housing impacts bedding costs. We’d like to try to quantify that because that could lead to economic benefits. We’ll be taking a look at all of this through studies based at the Emmons Blaine Dairy Cattle Research Center at Arlington Agricultural Research Station.