Structural development in the prime sector has led to increasing herd sizes and new barn systems, followed by less summer grazing for dairy cows in Denmark. Effects of grazing on single welfare measures in dairy cows – for example, the presence of integument alterations or mortality – have been studied under different conditions. However, the effect of grazing on welfare, conceptualised as the multidimensional physical and mental state of the animal, has not yet been studied in contemporary cubicle loose-housing systems. The aim of our study was to investigate, based on a Welfare Quality® inspired multidimensional dairy cow welfare assessment protocol, the within-herd effect of summer grazing compared with winter barn housing in Danish dairy herds with cubicle free-stall systems for the lactating cows. Our hypothesis was that cow welfare in dairy herds was better during summer grazing than during full-time winter housing. Furthermore, we expected improved welfare with an increase in daily summer grazing hours. In total, 41 herds have been visited once in the winter and once in the summer of 2010 to assess their welfare status with 17 different animal- and resource-based welfare measures. A panel of 20 experts on cattle welfare and husbandry evaluated the relative weight of the 17 welfare measures in a multidimensional assessment scheme. They estimated exact weights for a priori constituted severe compared with moderate scores of welfare impairment concerning each measure, as well as relevance of the measures in relation to each other. A welfare index (WI; possible range 0 to 5400) was calculated for each herd and season with a higher index indicating poorer welfare. The within-herd comparison of summer grazing v. winter housing considered all the 17 measures. The mean WI in summer was significantly lower (better) than in winter (mean 2926 v. 3330; paired t-test P = 0.0001) based on a better state of the integument, claw conformation and better access to water and food. Body condition and faeces consistence were worse in summer. Many daily grazing hours (range average above 3 to 9 h) turned out to be more beneficial than few daily grazing hours (range average above 9 to 21 h) for the welfare of the dairy herds. In conclusion, this study reports a positive within-herd effect of summer grazing on dairy cow welfare, where many daily grazing hours were more beneficial than few daily grazing hours.