Next steps in dairy cattle welfare: Are you ready for the challenge?

Dr. Nigel Cook
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Dairy cows eat at Reid's Dairy Farm in Grant township. Much of what dairy producers are asked to do in terms of animal welfare, is the result of “brand protection” and brands not wanting to be associated with any type of activity hinting of abuse.

When speaking about animal welfare, Dr. Nigel Cook, University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it is like a “train leaving the station, and you better be on board.”

Kicking off Vita Plus Dairy Summit 2018, Cook provided attendees with some background on the current animal welfare situation and gave a glimpse of where he thinks the industry will head.

Cook explained that the U.S. has largely been unprepared for animal welfare-related situations. This has allowed “well-funded and well-organized groups to advance their welfare agendas by feeding on the uninformed.”

Nigel Cook

He further explained that much of what dairy producers are asked to do is the result of “brand protection” and brands not wanting to be associated with that kind of activity.  Activists are able to drive their agenda using social media and other avenues to exert pressure on brands to enact change, ultimately forcing their hand.

At last year’s Vita Plus Dairy Summit, attendees learned animal welfare is defined by three areas: is the animal functioning well, are they feeling well, and are they able to live a “natural” life.  However, Cook said consumers have a more expansive view that includes food safety, public health, research and biotech, and the health of the planet.

“We need this and the other, not just what we think we need,” Cook said.

The response to these challenges has been to create audits and provide some degree of oversight. According to Cook, these auditing organizations aren’t going away any time soon, and they will continue to evolve to gain “teeth.” 

“Every dairy, regardless of size, will have to demonstrate compliance,” Cook said.  “This is the new normal.”

Cook highlighted what he thinks will be likely changes in the next five to 10 years.

Zero-tolerance for poor animal handling

This is the number one concern for brand names.  Cook said this will need to go further than just signing a form confirming their commitment to proper animal handling.  This will require a culture change.  He said dairy owners need to make sure everybody who touches the cows is well-trained in animal handling procedures and that these procedures are constantly enforced.

“Poorly trained people do dumb things,” Cook said.

Lameness is a welfare issue and a money drain that affects nearly one out of every four dairy cows in the world.

Improve lameness and injury score

Lameness and injury scores will continue to be increasingly scrutinized, Cook said.  Luckily, he said we have the research to do this.

“We need to implement what we know and do the simple things,” Cook said.

Employees will need to do a better job looking for hock, knee and neck injuries.  One example he provided was hair loss, which is a friction issue, and, depending on the area, could be resolved with deeper bedding, better stall design, and higher feedbunk bars or rails.  Cook did specify that this will also call for better training for the auditors.

Housing for adults and calves

Cook explained that tiestalls continue to be areas of concern due to movement restrictions. Outside access is expected by consumers, and more pasture time will likely be required for all types of barns.

Although research shows cows prefer to be inside the barn during the day, Cook cited new research that showed the benefits of planned pasture time. He also said new guidelines for tiestalls have been available for more than 10 years and can be successfully put in place with good cow management.

Most of Wisconsin's dairy barns in use today are stanchion or tie-stall types.

Lastly, Cook said the industry will likely shift toward group calf housing, which can provide many benefits for calves.  He said these benefits can also be achieved when calves are placed in pairs of two for 12 to 14 days, but you will likely need to increase their feeding rate.

Meds usage, pain mitigation

Increased oversight of medicine usage and an emphasis on pain mitigation for painful procedures largely calls for shifts in practices now.  Some changes include the need for a veterinarian of record to sign any document, using pain mitigation for castration and disbudding as early as possible (less than 8 weeks old), resorting to selective cow therapy versus blanket therapy, using polled genes, and using activity monitors and estrus synchronization programs.

Cook also said performance enhancers will continue to be criticized due to public perceptions, not the science.

A calf born early New Year's Day at Feltz Family Farms in Plover is sniffed by a cow.

Common management practices

Cook said some changes will likely affect how producers manage farms. This includes cow-calf separation, which does not play well with consumers no matter how informed they are. He predicts that calves will likely need to stay with mom for more than 24 hours, which is already happening in Europe.

In closing, Cook recommends that producers continue to tell their story and remain open to educational opportunities to continue to produce and sell milk.

“The welfare train isn’t going to stop,” he said.  “It’s going to keep going faster, and you better be on board.”

Article was originally posted in the VitaPlus 2018 Dairy Summit