Cow welfare and farm size – opportunities and challenges

The public is showing an increasing concern for the welfare of the cows on modern large dairy farms. Are the new technologies harmful? Is there a lower standard of care and a lack of beneficial practices like pasture on these large farms? The Animal Welfare group at the University of British Columbia studied barn design and management, and their results show that farm size is not primarily what matters, but rather the use of technology to detect illness and professional management with Standard Operation Procedures to ensure consistency. And deep bedding. That is the single most important feature that can reduce lameness on your farm. From Hoard's Dairyman webinar with Dan Weary, University of British Columbia.

From the  Hoard's Dairyman webinar with Dan Weary, University of British Columbia.

Dairy farms are getting fewer and larger; in 1970 there were 600 000 dairies in the US, and in 2012 there were 51 000. Numbers of cows on the farms increase, and this changes the face of modern dairy farms. It challenges some of the public perceptions of what a dairy farm should look like. The traditional farm with tie stalls and pastures stand in contrast to the larger dairies of today, with different technology and differences in some of the management practices.

There is a lot of criticism from the public about the modern mega farms. They criticize what they describe as a move from family-owned operations to company controlled operations, from individual care of the cow to economics and greed, and a switch from time-tested husbandry methods to new technology that may have negative impact on the animals. This is the nature of the criticism, and it is getting louder.

The team at the Animal Welfare group at the University of British Columbia studied cow comfort and barn design, and the differences in how people build and manage their farms in Canada, the US and China.

Weary and his team have done a lot to increase the awareness of lameness, which is a huge production problem with a big impact on farm economy. It is also a huge animal welfare problem, so they have been trying to get people to do a better job in recognizing lameness at an early stage.

In British Columbia an average of 30% of the cows are lame, and there was a lot of variation between farms, between 5% and 70%. Some farms do extremely well, while some farms are doing so badly that it becomes an issue and can get the rest of the industry in trouble.

Looking at the data, can they define farm practices that are good?

There is one feature in relation to barn design and farm management that has proven to greatly reduce lameness: the lying surface provided to the cows. Farms that use deep bedding have 50% lower rate of lameness than those who use non-deep bedding surface. This is a simple feature that has a huge impact on lameness in the herd. When it comes to hock lesions the effect of using deep bedding is even greater, with 95% less hock lesion rate when deep bedding is used.

They found a much higher rate of lameness in the north east of the US compared to California, and the reason for this is that dairies in California use deep bedded recycled dry manure solids. In other regions sand is very common for deep bedding. Having lots of bedding is the single most important thing to reduce lameness. If you can see the floor under cow you have problems with lameness and hock lesions.

Do cows on smaller farms have better lives than those on large farms? Does farm size matter?

In terms of cow comfort and animal welfare things look a little bit better on the larger farms than on the smaller farms. They found small and large farms with very little lameness, but they did not find any large farms with very high rates of lameness, so smaller farms, with less than 1500 cows, seem to be a greater risk of high rates of lameness.

These are issues that often come up in discussions related to large farms and animal welfare:

• Are larger farms more likely to have technology that could be harmful to animals?

• Are practices that benefit animal welfare less common on larger farms?

• On larger farms it can be difficult to give the cows access to certain beneficial practices, like access to pasture.

The large dairies can benefit from using new technology that can be scaled to  a growing herd, like a milking parlour, and real time recording of animal health and milk quality indicators can change how we take care of the animals.

Connection with the cows

Consumers are concerned with the belief that with all the new technology, like for instance the free stalls, we lose the connection with the cows. Comparing tie stalls and free stalls, the potential for improved animal welfare are much bigger in the free stalls, in terms of light, air, freedom to move around etc. A Swiss/German study showed that the quality of livestock handling was totally unaffected by herd size. “A small herd is no guarantee of, and no pre-condition for, a good relationship.”

Measuring behaviour

Another benefit of technology is the possibility to measure behavior, and Dan Weary showed an example of measuring how long, when and how much cow eat. This way it is possible to see on the feed intake if a cow is metritic long before she shows any clinical signs. By using video technology they can also identify loser cows that are pushed away by other, more dominant cows. These things can have a large effect on animal welfare.

Management practices

A number of management practices that are associated with good quality care are more common on larger farms. Table 1 shows how management practices proven to be beneficial for calves can vary with different farm sizes.

Specialized training and SOPs

CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding operation) have the potential to improve animal welfare in ways that smaller farms may not. They can designate specific employees with specialized training for different areas of production, and may also have the resources to establish specialized training programs in animal welfare for their employees.

Larger farms have to be professional in order to succeed, and therefore are more likely to have specialized staff, formal SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) and performance incentives. Small farms can also do an excellent job of course, and Dan Weary sees a lot of opportunity in that the larger farms share their SOPs with other farms.

Pasture for energy or welfare?

When cows get the choice of going out to pasture they do, but they spend time indoors as well. They prefer to spend the night on pasture, and stay inside during the day, when they eat most of their TMR. A study that compared cows with access to pasture with a group with no access, showed that TMR intake and milk production was identical in the two groups. So, even though giving the cows access to pasture might be a hard thing to do for larger farms, if there is the belief that a large portion of the cows energy intake has to come from grass, this shows that it might not be so difficult, since the cows are not using pasture so much for energy intake, but for other things.

Economic difficulties a larger threat to welfare

Danish research shows us that animal neglect isn’t related to farm size, but to farms that were entering economic difficulties. In another study farmers that did not think that they would be in business within five years had twice as high a rate of lameness compared to those who believed they would be in business in five years. This kind of economical restraints can be of huge importance in terms of welfare risks. There are profitable farms of all sizes, but the chance of a farm not being profitable becomes much bigger on smaller farms. We need to do a better job on recognizing those farms that are at a risk of going out of business, and be pro-active and help those farmers, and the cows on those farms.

Take home messages

  • Technology is getting increasingly important tool in the dairy industry; it aids decision-making and will have a huge impact. These tools are much easier to access and benefit from for larger farms.
  • Large farms are more likely to use professional management that reduces welfare risks. Farms can benefit from sharing SOPs.
  • Some beneficial practices, like pasture access, may be less likely to be used on larger farms, and research is needed to facilitate adoption of these practices.
  • Cow welfare can be at risk on farms that are going out of business. The dairy industry needs to develop proactive solutions.

Link to see full recorded webinar with Dan Weary at Hoard's Dairyman web site