June 2018 recap

Here is a belated recap for the month of June:

First student member of the Van Os lab!

At the beginning of June, the Van Os lab officially became a “group” instead of a one-woman show when Rekia Salter started her MSc in Dairy Science. Rekia grew up in Ohio and earned her B.S. in Animal, Poultry, and Veterinary Science from Tuskegee University in Alabama, where she gained research experience with meat goats. She also did a summer toxicology research project on mice at UIUC – my hometown 🙂

June Dairy Month was the perfect time for Rekia to start her foray into dairy. Right off the bat, she was able to visit several dairy farms, including one using robotic milking, another with a biodigester for converting manure and other waste into energy, and others involved in active research with UW-Madison.

Rekia is interested in feeding behavior, and her MSc thesis project will likely be on milk- and starter-delivery methods for feeding both individual- and pair-housed dairy calves to give them appropriate outlets for their natural suckling behavior. This summer, she is helping run a study we are conducting at Rosy-Lane Holsteins, a commercial dairy owned and operated by several alumni of our department.

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Rekia Salter, new MSc student, visits Rosy-Lane Holsteins

Badger Dairy Camp

In early June, Rekia and I led 4 back-to-back sessions for about 125 kids as part of the annual Badger Dairy Camp for ages 12-18. We led a group exercise getting the kids to use their knowledge, experience, and intuition to develop a definition of animal welfare. We worked through hypothetical scenarios with both cats and dairy cattle to discuss how to evaluate an animal’s welfare. This is the same exercise I’ve used for college students, and I was pleased to see many of the teens rise to the challenge and come up with good questions and insights.

Twilight Meeting

I was invited by the Dodge County and Fond du Lac County Forage Councils to give the keynote presentation at their June 20th Twilight Meeting, hosted by Michels Family Farm in Lomira. I talked about “Why Millenials care about food animal production practices – and what it means for you.” My presentation covered my own story of how I went from a non-ag background to my current position and also highlighted some social science research that gives us some foundations for bridging the gap between producers and a largely non-ag consumer base. My talk was covered in the Watertown Daily Times, and I will write my own in-depth piece on the topic in the future.

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Photo by Julie of Gurn-Z Meadow Farm

Vita Plus Calf Summit

The next day, I was invited to give 2 back-to-back breakout sessions for the Vita Plus Calf Summit: Growing Calves from the Inside Out. We discussed “Beyond health: Considerations for promoting good welfare in dairy calves. Good health is important for good animal welfare, and good production is essential to the viability of a dairy operation. But although good health is essential, it isn’t sufficient for an animal to have good welfare. Other considerations include the animal’s subjective experience and its opportunities to express important behaviors. I used pain management for dehorning and social housing, respectively, as examples. My talks were covered on the Vita Plus blog as well as in Hoard’s Dairyman.


June wrapped up with the annual American Dairy Science Association meeting, held this year in Knoxville, TN. I presented a poster on some work I started during my postdoc at UBC. Similar to my poster last year, I’m interested in the question of how to get a representative sample of cows when conducting animal welfare assessments. For this paper, we drew from 4 existing industry programs (National Milk’s FARM program, Dairy Well, Validus, and proAction in Canada) and compared how they sample cows and what thresholds of acceptability they use for animal-based measures like lameness, leg injuries, and body condition score. We are hoping to come up with practical recommendations that evaluation programs can use to balance accuracy and feasibility (time and labor constraints) when conducting assessments on farm.

Incoming Van Os lab MSc student Kimberly Reuscher won 3rd place in the Undergraduate Original Research Poster competition! Kim’s poster was about her study on heat stress in different calf hutch designs in Texas, where she completed her B.S. at Tarleton State. Kim will be joining us at UW-Madison in August.

After the conference, I visited the UT-Knoxville dairy with my collaborator Dr. Peter Krawczel of UTK. An interesting management practice on their facility is housing preweaned calves in groups of 5 or 10 on pasture after a brief initial period of individual housing. Milk is delivered in 5-teat buckets and the pasture has a straw-bedded carport for shade. The herd manager, Tate, not only takes good care of the UTK cows, but also of the several barn cats he employs for keeping pests out of the cow feed. The cats were big, shiny, and very friendly toward calves and visitors alike!


UT-Knoxville has some nice looking cows and cats!

May 2018 recap

Here is a belated recap for the month of May:

Dairyland Initiative workshops

At the start of May, I attended the Dairyland Initiative workshops in Green Bay. It was an excellent boot camp on the topics of youngstock facility design, positive-pressure tube ventilation for calf barns, and ventilation for adult cows.

I appreciated that the meeting kicked off with a group discussion of potential welfare and housing needs for calves. The implicit distinction is that housing is something we provide to the animals, but welfare reflects the animals’ intrinsic needs. In this Facebook video with Tina Kolhman from UW Extension Fond du Lac, we chat more about this topic.

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The kickoff group discussion on housing and animal welfare considerations for calf barn design at the Dairyland Initiave workshop

Wisconsin Idea Seminar

In mid-May, I spent a week traveling around the state by bus along with 40 fellow UW-Madison faculty and staff. The Wisconsin Idea Seminar is meant to help us learn more about the state we serve – and more specifically about the various communities that make up our state, and the issues that are relevant to them.

On the first day, we stopped at Mystic Valley Dairy, which I had visited the previous month. My colleagues, Drs. Kent Weigel and Heather White were there to help answer questions, along with the owner, Mitch Breunig, and his nutrition consultant, James Bailey. Grande Cheese provided a delicious pizza lunch.

For many of my bus-mates, this was the first time they’d set foot on a real dairy farm. Many people were impressed and surprised by how clean the cows were, the level of detail that goes into their care, and the use of precision technology (i.e., “cow fitbits”) to monitor cow activity and health on this facility.

Heather and I are now in the process of helping Catherine Reiland, the organizer, with planning the dairy visit for the next Idea Seminar cohort in 2019.

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Dr. Kent Weigel (department chair) and Dr. Heather White helped lead the tour at Mystic Valley Dairy

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About 40 of us spent the week touring the state by bus and learning about Wisconsin’s varied communities

Dairy Cattle Welfare Symposium

I rounded out a month of heavy travel in Scottsdale, AZ at the 3rd Dairy Cattle Welfare Symposium, with my trip made possible with sponsorship from VES Environmental Solutions. I had presented at the 1st meeting in Ohio in 2016, but this time I was there to catch up with collaborators and talk about needs and ideas for future research and outreach projects.

April 2018 recap

Here is a belated recap for the month of April:

Farm Visits

As UW-Madison’s new extension specialist in dairy animal welfare, I’ve been eager to meet Wisconsin producers, talk with them about their approaches on animal welfare, and see their operations in action.

When I first moved to Wisconsin from California this spring, I asked some of my new colleagues what they found surprising when they first came here from out of state. They said they were amazed at just how nice Wisconsinites can be.

Since then, about a dozen family-owned dairies have proven this to be true and welcomed me onto their farms. Their herd sizes ranged from under 100 to the thousands, some were freestalls and others tiestalls, most milked in a parlor but some used robotics, and I saw a wide a variety of management strategies. My visits have been a reminder that there are so many different ways to dairy successfully.

My goal was to meet people and learn about their decisions around housing, management, and animal care – not to do formal animal welfare evaluations. But I saw and heard several common themes that made me happy – and hopefully their cattle too. During my farm visits, we’ve had a lot of good discussions about what animal welfare means, some of the issues the dairy industry currently faces, and some of the challenges ahead.

Sunburst Dairy

A gorgeous (twin!) red Holstein at Sunburst Dairy. Check out her eyelashes – maybe she’s born with it… maybe it’s Moobelline?


On April 19, I had my first “official” outing as an extension specialist, delivering dual programs organized by UW Extension at Alma Center and Eau Claire, where I talked about “Science to understand best practices for promoting dairy cattle welfare.” The groups were small but engaged, and we had some good discussions about what animal welfare means. I did an 8-minute interview with WAXX Radio, which you can listen to here.

Paper featured on PLoS homepage

Our recently published paper about the motivation of feedlot finishing cattle for roughage in their diet was featured on the front page of the newly redesigned website for the journal, PLoS ONE. It was a treat to see the value of the work promoted by the journal!

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Our paper was featured on the front page of the newly redesigned PLoS website!

Temple Grandin visit

On April 26, the Saddle & Sirloin Club, UW-Madison’s student animal science organization, invited Dr. Temple Grandin to speak. I appreciated when Dr. Grandin pointed out that “accomodat[ing] highly motivated behavioral needs” and giving animals opportunities for “positive emotions” are important factors when thinking about the welfare of farm animals.

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March 2018 recap

It’s been a whirlwind few months as I’ve been settling into my role at UW-Madison! The website has a new name (www.DairyAnimalWelfare.org) and I established a twitter account (@AWSUWM – Animal Welfare Science at UW-Madison). Here is a belated recap for the month of March:

  • The following week was the UW Extension Wisconsin Dairy & Beef Well-Being Conference in Green Bay, where I met several of the county agents on the dairy team. This month (July), we’re starting work organizing the next cattle well-being conference.
  • I was particularly impressed to see the UW Extension Language Access & Support team in action at the conference. They provided live interpretation from English to Spanish (and vice-versa) through headphones.

America’s Dairyland

I am honored and thrilled to join the Department of Dairy Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in Animal Welfare. 

20180311_172208My goal for this role is to help the dairy industry remain sustainable in the long term. Understanding and promoting animal welfare is an essential part of achieving this goal. To this end, my applied research program will follow these broad themes:

  • Improving the fit between dairy animals and their environments: how do housing and management decisions affect physiology, behavior, and production?
  • Understanding the needs of dairy animals from a biological perspective: what behaviors are important for them to be able to express and what resources do they need?
  • Developing and validating tools: how do we evaluate animal welfare effectively on commercial operations? How can we use technology to help us monitor animal welfare?

I’m so excited for this opportunity in America’s Dairyland. I’m eager to learn more about the local industry, conduct applied research, and develop outreach programs that will promote best practices and help the Wisconsin industry adapt as our knowledge about animal welfare continues to grow.


Update: the UW-Madison College of Agricultural & Life Sciences published my new faculty profile here

Open-access paper on cattle motivation for roughage

Last week, we published a paper in PLoS ONE on the motivation of feedlot cattle for roughage. (This was the topic I presented at the 100th California Cattlemen’s Association, covered in a previous blog post). You can download the full text of the paper for free by clicking here.

Van Os, Jennifer M. C., Erin M. Mintline, Trevor J. DeVries, and Cassandra B. Tucker. 2018. Domestic cattle (Bos taurus taurus) are motivated to obtain forage and demonstrate contrafreeloading. PLoS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0193109.

Free access to our paper on sampling for welfare assessments

We recently published a paper in the Journal of Dairy Science on sample sizes and cow-selection strategies for on-farm dairy welfare assessments. (This was the topic I presented at ADSA last summer, covered in a previous blog post). You can download the full text of the paper for free through March 7, 2018 by clicking here.

Van Os, Jennifer M. C., Christoph Winckler, Julia Trieb, Soraia V. Matarazzo, Terry W. Lehenbauer, John D. Champagne, and Cassandra B. Tucker. 2018. Reliability of sampling strategies for measuring dairy cattle welfare on commercial farms. Journal of Dairy Science 101:1495-1504. doi:10.3168/jds.2017-13611.

Brushing up on dairy farming

Last Saturday was the annual open house at the UBC Dairy Education & Research Centre. Despite the light rain, we got an estimated 870 visitors, many on bicycle! In addition to drinking free chocolate milk, our guests learned about dairy farming and research on animal welfare, reproduction, and nutrient management.

Along with UBC honors undergraduate student Savannah Goldstein and PhD student Ana Carolina Moncada, I talked with our visitors about grooming behavior and brush use by dairy cattle.

Previous research has shown that grooming is an important natural behavior for cattle. Grooming behavior includes licking or scratching themselves, licking each other to form and maintain social bonds, and rubbing against objects such as trees, fences, or other surfaces indoors. When cows are given access to brushes, they spend more time grooming themselves, especially on otherwise hard-to-reach spots such as around the tail. Most research has focused on adult cows, and an increasing number of farms invest in automated rotating mechanical brushes.

Non-rotating brushes for heifers

Savannah and I are currently conducting 2 experiments with weaned heifers about 5 months old. We are giving the heifers small, non-rotating grooming brushes, which are in fact scrub brushes from the hardware store costing $18-20 CAD ($14-16 USD) each.

For Savannah’s thesis project, we are evaluating the heifers’ preferences for brushes mounted on the wall of the lying area in their pen, which is an open space with deep sawdust bedding. We are comparing how much the heifers use brushes with different orientations and bristle stiffness levels: stiff (similar to a dandy brush for horses) vs. extra-stiff (like those on the rotating cow brushes).

In our other study, we are investigating whether mounting brushes inside the freestalls can encourage heifers to lie down correctly when they first move into that type of housing system. With freestall housing, the idea is for cows to lie down in a stall such that manure falls into the alley and doesn’t dirty the bedding. However, heifers and cows sometimes lie down backward or in the manure alley instead. So far our results show promise, and visiting McGill University undergraduate Jessica St-Pierre is considering trying this strategy on her family’s dairy farm in Quebec!

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I set up the brushes with extra-stiff (black) and stiff (yellow) bristles for our visitors to feel and compare. The Lely automated rotating mechanical brush is in the background.

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One of my favorite friendly cows, 5023, wanted to check out the brushes too…

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… So we mounted one on the fence for her and her buddies to investigate. Here, 5023 is getting in a good face rub!

Rotating brushes for cows

Ana, a PhD student and veterinarian from Colombia, is currently running a study with a rotating mechanical brush. She is investigating how mange, resulting from mite infestations, affects how much cows want to use the brush. Mites tend to dwell around the tailhead (where the tail meets the body), which is a difficult place for cows to reach and groom themselves. A mechanical brush can help cows relieve itchiness in that area of their body. To evaluate how important a resource – such as a brush – is to animals, we can ask them to pay a price. But the price involves performing a task or overcoming an obstacle instead of paying money. For her experiment, Ana has trained cows to push a gate to get access to the brush, and she can increase the “price” by adjusting the force needed for cows to open the gate.

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Cow 4095 demonstrates how the mechanical brush can help her groom hard-to-reach areas such as her back

Check out this video clip I put together of some of the cows using the rotating brush in a variety of ways during the open house:

  • on the tailhead, where mange tends to occur
  • under the tail (a couple visitors joked it was like cow TP!)
  • on the head (doubling as a punching bag!)

Clear as mud?

Moisture can create muddy surfaces on pasture or in housing systems such as drylots and bedded packs. Dairy cattle show signs of increased stress in rainy and windy conditions, but previous research had not separated the effects of inclement weather from muddy ground conditions.

We housed pregnant cows and heifers in dirt-floored enclosures to evaluate the effects of muddy ground conditions on their lying behavior, dirtiness, and physiological responses.

Our results were hardly clear as mud! Rather, our cattle made it clear that they were reluctant to lie down on muddy surfaces. In fact, they often chose to lie down on the concrete floor in front of the feed trough instead, even though past research has shown that cows typically avoid lying on concrete. Previous studies have also found that it is important for cows to spend over half of their day lying down, but when the ground was muddier, our cattle spent more time standing up.

Our results show that – even in the absence of rain or wind – muddy ground surfaces have negative effects on the comfort and welfare of dairy cattle.

For our other findings, check out our paper in Journal of Dairy Science or listen to my 4-minute narrated slideshow explaining our study:

Jennifer M. Chen, Carolyn L. Stull, David N. Ledgerwood, and Cassandra B. Tucker. 2017. Muddy conditions reduce hygiene and lying time in dairy cattle and increase time spent on concrete. Journal of Dairy Science 100:2090-21036. doi:10.3168/jds.2016-11972.