Dairy animal welfare (Proceedings)

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Dairy animal welfare (Proceedings)

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Aug 01, 2008

Dairy production systems in the US have changed considerably over the last several decades due to forces that promote economic efficiency of production and to scientific and technological advances that afford opportunities for change. Societal values and concerns about animal well-being and specifically about livestock production systems and their impact on animal well-being have also changed throughout that time. It would be worthwhile for dairy producers and veterinarians to critically evaluate production practices for their impact on the animals. Optimizing animal well-being is not only a moral imperative, but should also assure optimal animal productivity.

In general dairies have not experienced the type of extreme criticism that has been focused on the swine or poultry industries. This is probably attributable to multiple factors that work in favor of animal welfare even during a process of industrialization. Dairy producers have traditionally had a strong animal welfare ethic and, as mentioned above, most dairies are still operated by individuals or families who maintain this approach. In general it is fair to say that dairy animals are well cared for in the modern dairy industry. Typical dairy husbandry provides good nutrition, circumstances that promote animal interaction and normal expression of individual and herd behavior, space and opportunity to get exercise, and protection against adverse weather conditions. There are exceptions to these generalizations. Numerous animal welfare concerns exist in the industry, but they tend to be complexities of the balance between an excessive focus on economics and production efficiency rather than an expression of disregard for, or diminution of the importance of the animals themselves.

There is clearly pressure on producers to increase production efficiency and total production as the means to improve their business and maintain their livelihood. In such an environment animal welfare may be important to the producer, but it is not the motivation for change. Rather, economics and growth drive change, while animal welfare is an important, but secondary, consideration. Additionally, as the enterprise grows it may no longer be the producer or the family members who provide primary animal care. Without an appropriate training process for employees, a system that has specific guidelines for animal handling and welfare, a monitoring system for assessing these features, and a decision making system that adjusts to specific individual animal needs, then it is very easy for the producer to believe that animals are faring better than is truly the case. Very few dairies, as they get very large, make the time investment to specifically focus on animal welfare and the employee training and monitoring required for enhancement of animal welfare. In this situation individual animals can fall outside the average for the herd and go unnoticed. For example, an animal with a debilitating disease may suffer for a considerable time before being euthanized, even though the producer would not conceive of letting the animal suffer if it had been noticed earlier. In other words, when production systems get very large, it is easier to 'say' that each individual is valued than it is to take action based on that principle.

To be realistic, it seems foolish to look at old style and small-scale dairy production systems and suggest that they provided ideal animal welfare. Clearly, some managers and some settings provided good animal welfare with grazing systems and exercise and low stress. Other circumstances in similar time, style and place could provide squalor, starvation, poor housing and exposure to the elements, due to monetary constraints, lack of information, or lack of resources. In similar fashion the modern, large scale, intensified dairy systems have the potential to provide for excellent animal welfare, but may produce new disease problems, inadequate attention to individual animal problems, and improper training for employees to recognize and manage animal problems.

Environmental Stress

It is not news to dairy producers that heat has profound negative effects on their cattle. Virtually all of the dairy trade periodicals contain frequent articles about the problem and new ideas on how to manage it. There are several striking and sobering aspects of the response the dairy industry has had to this problem. The movement of the industry to areas where heat stress is common is not being made for the benefit of the animals, but for purely economic/cost of production reasons. The overwhelming majority of literature that focuses on heat stress details the effects of the phenomenon on production parameters, with scarcely a mention of the fundamental animal suffering that takes place while production is declining. Thus, heat stress is seen almost exclusively as an economic/production problem, rather than as the animal welfare issue that it really is. There are means to reduce the impact of heat on the cattle, including modified shelters, fans that move large volumes of air around the cattle, water spraying misters, and alterations in diet. These mitigations are broadly applied, and it would be accurate to say that the problem is taken seriously.