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Dairy Welfare: EFSA Reinvents the Cow

16 July 2009

A report released by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) finds many areas of modern dairy farming lacking in regards to cow welfare. But do farmers have the power to enforce these strict new guidelines in the face of the EU-wide dairy crisis? asks Adam Anson, TheDairySite.

Dairy cow welfare has been widely researched by scientists across the globe, yet many of the issues raised have not been acted upon. Meanwhile, the consequences of many of these issues have become progressively more dramatic as the dairy industry adapts to cater for soaring global demand and falling milk prices.

In response to an increasingly mindful welfare-friendly public, the European Commission requested that the Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW) Panel of EFSA deliver a Scientific Opinion considering whether current farming and husbandry systems comply with the requirements of dairy cows from the pathological, zootechnical, physiological and behavioural points of view.

The information collated in the report was so wide and detailed that the resulting Scientific Opinion was released in five separate reports. Four reports covered the main pillars of dairy cow welfare, consisting of: metabolic and reproductive disorders; udder disorders; leg and locomotion problems; and behavioural disorders, fear and pain. The fifth Scientific Opinion brought these individual topics together, incorporating conclusions and recommendations for future policies in the European dairy industry.

This scientific opinion on the overall effects of farming systems on dairy cow welfare and disease was adopted by the AHAW Panel on 05 June 2009.

Hot Topics

More Milk No More

"Long term genetic selection for high milk yield is the major factor causing poor welfare, in particular health problems, in dairy cows," says the report.

"The milk yield of dairy cows has risen steadily over the last thirty years in Europe with approximately 50 per cent of this increase estimated to be attributable to genetic selection for milk production efficiency."

According to the report, this desire for increased milk production has caused dairy cows to produce unnatural quantities of milk. The report goes on to say that many dairy cows are unable to eat enough food to sustain this level of production.

Holstein cows, which have been bred to produce twice as much milk as traditional breeds, suffer particularly severely. According to media reports, the accusation was summed up as "milking cows to starvation" in a BBC interview with one of the report's authors, Donald Broom, professor of animal welfare in the veterinary school at Cambridge University.

The genetic components that lead to these increases in udder size also show correlation to related diseases, including lameness, mastitis, reproductive disorders and metabolic disorders. Serious health issues can lead to the suffering of these dairy cows and their premature slaughter.

According to the recommendations of the report, farmers need to reprioritise the traits they are selecting when choosing their animals.

Prize winning dairy cows producing huge quantities of milk may be assigned to the past. The new image of a great dairy cow may give greater significance to "fitness and welfare traits" even when these conflict with milk yield.

"Genetic selection for improved fertility, health and longevity is likely to improve welfare and lead to greater profit for the farmer", suggests the Scientific Opinion.

Size and Space

Another major issue that drew concern form EFSA was the increasing size of cows in comparison with the confined space provided for them. It says that cubicles should be wide enough to minimise any movement difficulties or teat trampling. Cubicles and tie-stalls should be designed in such a way that the forward movement of the body of the cow is not thwarted when changing position from lying to standing.

The risk assessment exercise confirmed that poor cubicle design and lack of space are the highest ranked hazards, respectively in cubicle houses and tie stalls. The Scientific Opinion recommended minimum space allowance of 8.6 m² in cubicle houses and a cubicle width 1.8 times cow hip width. It also recommended that "in cubicle houses there should be at least as many cubicles as there are cows in the house."

The report also recognised the welfare benefits to a cow if she is allowed to access well managed pasture or other suitable outdoor conditions so she can express natural social behaviours - taking time to groom and exersize, and in doing so, release stresses that have an adverse affect on production.

Hunger for Welfare

"All dairy cattle should be fed a diet that provides sufficient energy, nutrients and dietary fibre to meet the metabolic requirements in a way that is consistent with digestion," says the report. "When diet is changed there should be carefully controlled transition feeding in order to prevent poor welfare in the cattle."

Good food access is an essential priority due to the stresses of increased milk production demands. Similarly, drinking water should be safe and accessible, available at whatever time the animal desires.

Prevention and Cures

The report also advised on an increased monitoring of animal health. It reccommended a series of methods to prevent the occurrence of mastitis and called on all dairy farmers to implement a lameness prevention programme. It recommended that housing conditions must be improved an animals that have a high prevalence of recognisable locomotor difficulties, e.g. approaching 10 per cent.

"Pain management should be part of the treatment of severe lameness and clinical mastitis," said the report.

Reactions and Implications

The Scientific Opinion released by EFSA concluded that the body of research should be incorporated into codes of practice and monitoring protocols throughout the EU. Animal welfare organisations have been quick to demand immediate action, but many farmers' organisations are concerned by the implications of such strict standards. Cost sharings plans for animal health (proposed in the UK), will make some of the recommendations very expensive.

The enaction of many of these guidances go beyond a matter of animal understanding and become an economic issues, pitting ethical beliefs against business.

The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers argues that dairy farmers aren't "resting on their laurels". And, while the association welcomes the report, it also says that a rise in milk prices must follow alongside any changes. The average UK milk price for May stood at 20.6ppl, well below the 26ppl cost of production, points out the association.

Throughout all of Europe a dairy crisis is already unfolding, increased costs to dairy farmers may only lead to a diminishing industry. Although, as the report suggests, higher welfare leads to increased milk production, many of the recommendations will undoubtedly not lead to increase profits for many farmers.

Report co-author, Prof Broom said that premium prices for high-welfare milk comparable to those seen on free-range eggs would help lift the dairy industry, but retailers have so far been unwilling to significantly rise the prices of milk.

But, the EFSA report is analysis of animal welfare, not of market forces and industry, and in that respect the recommendations made are of great importance. Significantly it readdresses the way in which we perceive the dairy cow, as an animal, not a machine.

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.

July 2009

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