Working at the cow wash: promoting positive experiences for farm animals

"In order to promote hygiene and the expression of cows’ natural behavior, like rubbing up against stuff, the automatic rotating cow brush was born!"

Remember the point at which some kindly stranger took to writing “CLEAN ME” in the visible dust of your rear car window and you finally gave in and went to the drive-in car wash?  I do.  I remember because weirdly, I always thought the green rotating flappy brush would feel kind of nice.  Like a serious deep-tissue massage.  It turns out that dairy cows and I have the same desires.

Animal scientists generally agree that healthy and comfortable dairy cows will produce more milk.  Keeping them healthy and comfortable includes basic care components like excellent nutrition, good veterinary care, and access to well-designed housing, but it also includes providing for the expression of cows’ natural behaviors and promoting positive experiences for them. 

In order to promote hygiene and the expression of cows’ natural behavior, like rubbing up against stuff (or for the more technically sound readers, grooming), the automatic rotating cow brush was born!  This is pretty much your average car wash brush (without the flappy bits) that rotates on cue.  A cow can come up to it at her leisure, knock it around a bit (which stimulates the rotating mechanism), and then happily get her hard-to-reach parts rubbed and scratched and cleaned at her very own walk-up cow wash.

This brush fulfills the inquisitive and exploratory nature of cows, allows them to engage in self-grooming, and keeps them clean—a bonus for both the farmer and the cows.  Check out the video below of one of my heifers (a little lady I reared from when she was about ankle height), thoroughly enjoying her daily morning brush.

Other farmed species, including hens, engage in important grooming behavior, as well.  Dust-bathing is a comfort behavior performed by hens to maintain the health of their feathers.  Hens create a dust mound and kick up substrate (they really like peat moss—who wouldn’t want to get a bit of peat moss between their toes?) and toss dirt on their back and wings.  If undisturbed, hens can take a good 20 minutes to complete the full sequence of behaviors that make up dust-bathing! Check out a great video here!  Currently, cage-free systems are the only system that allow hens to dust-bathe effectively.  Supporting successfully managed farms that provide for aspects of a natural life that are important to farm animals help to promote positive experiences for these animals, not just the absence of negative experiences—an important consideration if we are concerned about giving farm animals a life worth living.

By Priya Motupalli, Animal Welfare Specialist

Priya Motupalli is an Animal Welfare Scientist with World Animal Protection.  She advises on animal welfare and best practice on farm via an evidence-based approach.  Prior to her work with World Animal Protection, Priya received her PhD in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare from Harper Adams University in the UK.  Her research focused on dairy cattle and their preference for pasture, and the welfare and production implications of allowing farm animals to have control over their own environment.  Alongside scientific publications, she has been featured in Meat Management Magazinefor her excellence in science communication and written invited guest pieces for the Scientific American online blog network.