Improving the Comfort and Longevity of Cows

Project entitled:

Industrial Research Chair NSERC-Novalait-PLC-Valacta on Sustainable Life of Dairy Cattle

Elsa Vasseur, Kevin Wade, Roger Cue, Doris Pellerin, Jeff Rushen, Joop Lensink, Steve Adam, René Lacroix, Débora Santschi, Daniel Lefebvre


  • Dairy farmers face the challenge of providing consumers with high-quality products that meet societal expectations for environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and econo- mic accessibility, while ensuring increased productivity based on an understanding of the nutritional and physiological needs of dairy cows.
  • Increasing the lifespan of dairy cattle raised in housing in an environment that promotes their comfort and health is a sustainable solution that increases the profits generated by companies, limits their environmental footprint, and addresses concerns about animal welfare by reducing involuntary culling.
  • For these reasons, and to develop expertise in this field, the Industrial Research Chair on Sustainable Life of Dairy Cattle was created at McGill University on January 1, 2016. This major research initiative aims to provide dairy farmers with concrete data and tools to optimize comfort and increase the life span of dairy cows, with a particular focus on tie-stalls.
  • The Chair also aims to improve recommendations for animal welfare to help farmers prepare for the implementation of the animal welfare component of the ProAction® national program.
  • The Chair’s work has produced results on changes in stall configuration to increase comfort and opportunities for movement for cows in tie-stalls. The following studies address the impact of access to exercise on cow behaviour, welfare, and health.
  • The second research theme will examine long-term profitability measures and herd longevity. The projects are conducted through a database analysis of Quebec dairy herds.



  • Optimize cow comfort and increase opportunities for movement, specifically cows in tie-stalls, by modifying housing and access to exercise.
  • Increase cow longevity while taking dairy farm profitability into account.


Results and potential benefits

The Chair’s research activities focused on two main themes:

Cow comfort and herd management

  • New knowledge has been developed on behavioural measures, which can be used to automate the monitoring and detection o fproblems related to the welfare of cows in tie-stalls. For example:
    • A 3-D pedometer (IceTag) accurately measures the number of steps taken by the cow in its stall (Shepley et al. 2017 Agriculture 7:53)
  • A number of studies have been conducted to assess the impact of housing on movement opportunities and cow comfort.
    • Cows use the extra space provided to them: all the characteristics of the stall have the potential to provide additional space, whether by increasing the length of the chain, or the width or the length of the stall. We confirmed that bedding is an essential element of comfort (the more, the better) and that hock injuries heal in 6 weeks when cows are housed in stalls with deep bedding (St-John et al., 2021 JDS 104): 3304; Boyer et al., 2021a JDS 104:3316; Boyer et al., 2021b JDS 104:3327; McPherson and Vasseur, 2021 JDS 104:3339).
    • What movement opportunities can be offered to cows outside the stall? We found that housing dairy cows in enclosures during the dry-off period was beneficial for rest and recovery with respect to locomotor abilities (Shepley et al., JDS 102): 6508; Shepley et al., in revision). The next studies focus on access to exercise for dairy cows in tie-stalls and its impact on the cow behaviour, welfare, and health (specifically locomotor). Analysis of the results is in progress.


Dairy cattle longevity

  • We analyzed the impact of the first incidence of mastitis or lameness on performance, profitability, and longevity at different stages of lactation on 20,000 cows in 120 Quebec herds:
    • We found that, during the first lactation, a first case of mastitis or lameness reduces production and profit by up to 1,200 kg and $1,000 CAD per sick cow while increasing the risk of culling up to 2x (Puerto et al., 2021a. JDS.2020-19584; Puerto et al., 2021b. JDS.2020-19585);
    • Lactation results suggest that the revenues generated in the current lactation have largely influenced the retention capacity of cows in the herd for another lactation. Profitable cows appeared to be more efficient with respect to feeding until lactation 2 and less likely to contract diseases during subsequent lactations. These findings have led to the development of an interactive decision-making support tool that leverages information on costs and cumulative lifetime revenues to assess herd profitability (Warner et al. under review);
  • In collaboration with the Lactanet R&D team, we used Valacta databases to remotely detect low-welfare herds:
    • The model worked well for lameness but less well for hock injuries (Warner et al., 2020. COMPAG 169: 105193);
    • We developed a tool for comparative welfare analysis (Herd Status Index HSI) based on 14 indicators derived from routine dairy control data (Warner et al., 2020 Animals 10: 1689).

Professionals trained

The Research Chair participates in the training of highly qualified personnel. Since its inception, 48 people have been trained and actively involved in projects.

PhD: Gabriel Machado Dallago (in progress) and Elise Shepley

Master’s degree with thesis:
in progress

Anna Bradtmueller
Amir Nejati
Rachel Chiasson
Catherine Lussier
Naziya Mauyenova
Jordan Tonooka
Maria A. Puerto Rodriguez
Sarah McPherson
Véronique Boyer
Jessica St John

Applied master’s degree:

Oluwaseyi Adeboye
Sirine El Hamdaoui
VetAgroSup Clermont, France
Nicolas Gafsi
Anthony Pic
Université de Sassari, Italie
Maria Francesca Guiso
Giovanni Obinu
ISA Lille, France
Manon Demaret
Sirine El Hamdaoui

AgroCampus Ouest, France
Géraud Plas-Debecker
Marianne Berthelot

Postdoctoral fellows:
in collaboration with Lactanet
Maxime Leduc
Daniel Warner
Liliana Fadul Pacheco
Hector Delgado

For further information

  • Several articles reporting the progress of the Chair’s work were published in the journal Le producteur de lait Québécois.
  • Poster presentations at the 2018 and 2021 and Novalait Forum Techno
  • Chair website: mcgill.ca/animal
  • Chair blog: cowlifemcgill.com
  • Chair Twitter account: @CowLifeMcGill
  • 3 short videos were produced: video 1 video 2 video 3

Financial contributions

The Research Chair is funded through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Industrial Research Chairs program. Industrial partners include:

  • Novalait
  • Dairy Farmers of Canada
  • Valacta
  • McGill University has also provided financial contributions.

Total budget: $1,720,000