ROXBURY – While animal welfare can be a term that gets under farmers’ skin because of its various connotations, Dr. Jennifer Van Os believes that it can be something that’s beneficial for the cow, the producer and consumer.

Van Os is an assistant professor and Extension specialist on animal welfare with the University of Wisconsin. She spoke recently in Roxbury at a session for dairy farmers sponsored by Lodi Veterinary Care.

Van Os talked about the FARM program (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) – a program that has evolved over the last 10 or 12 years. It draws on money farmers put in to national programs through their dairy checkoff and was started to ensure consumers that dairy farmers care for their animals in a humane and ethical manner.

Under the program, trained third-party evaluators come to farms and look for certain animal handling practices, veterinary drug use records and training on euthanasia practices, among other things. In more recent evaluations, standard operating procedures and employee training methods are also documented. Evaluations are done every three years on farms.

The program, she said, creates a framework and foundation for on-farm animal care with a focus on science-based outcomes. The evaluation is a “snapshot of farm management practices” and was instituted in the hope of “creating a culture of continuous improvement” throughout the U.S. dairy industry. “It’s trying to help dairy farmers achieve a high bar.”

One of the key points in the FARM program is documenting a valid client-veterinarian relationship. That’s in place to meet the goal of routine veterinary care and oversight to assure good health and care of the animals, she explained.

A Veterinary Client Patient Relationship form (VCPR) should be signed annually and farmers should get used to keeping records on all the drugs they use on their animals. The FARM evaluation also looks for a herd health plan including vaccinations, treatment for common diseases, lameness prevention and how difficult calvings are handled. FARM evaluators also look for documentation on milking procedures, parasite control, biosecurity and “fitness for transport” – when a cow needs to be shipped.

Under FARM 4.0, which came out last month, evaluators must walk through every animal pen and look for signs of neglect. Housing should meet basic needs – food, water and shelter. They will also be looking for low body condition scores, especially extremely thin cows.

Lameness has repeatedly been identified as the number-one welfare concern in dairy cows and can affect a relatively high number of cows on some farms. While it has economic implications and can often lead to culling, it is bad for public perception, she said. “There’s no way of making that tell a good story for us.”

Most studies have shown that farms in Canada and the United States experience lameness in their cows at levels of 3 to 8 percent. However, many farms have no extremely lame cows and some have more than that level.

“There’s a range across herds and the idea of setting goals is to offer feedback. The power of data is to manage toward a goal and work to make things better,” Van Os said.

Often when farms are presented with their cows’ lameness data, they respond by trying to improve and drive that number down because it is the right thing to do for cow health. “So many people are striving to do better every day,” she said. “They are holding themselves to a high professional standard.”

Animal welfare

Some people look at “animal welfare” as a “mandated science” rather than other disciplines that are done for scientific research purposes – like dairy science, she said. But she explained that it is a “societal mandate” and as such it is a key piece of farmers’ sustainability.

Animal welfare can have mixed or even negative connotations among farmers but is mainly centered on how a cow or calf is faring and is outcome-based, Van Os said. The practices of housing, overall farm management and cattle handling all lead to outcomes and those outcomes relate to how well the animals do, which is animal welfare.

Farmers must deal with expectations from many quarters – their dairy co-ops or processors, corporate buyers and consumers. “It can feel like it’s a top-down situation,” she told the dairy farmer group.

Sometimes companies set “corporate social responsibility” goals like McDonald's did when the corporation decided to use only cage-free eggs in their restaurants.

But alongside stakeholder expectations, she noted that research scientists can play an important role, like spelling out what cattle need in order to have “good welfare.”

“We in the biological sciences can look at how to provide for needs and expectations on the farm because we understand cattle. We want to see the dairy industry succeed into the future with the best quality of life for dairy cattle.”

Calf raising in groups

Animal welfare, societal expectations from milk buyers and animal science research are beginning to take a look at calf raising practices. One UK grocery store chain mandates that dairy calves be raised in pairs or groups by the time they are two weeks of age, for animal welfare reasons.

Van Os said a 2019 survey of 416 U.S. dairy farms found that 77 percent of their calves on milk were raised in individual pens, with 1.7 percent raising them in pairs and 5.5 percent raising them in groups. On the advice of University experts many decades ago, single-calf pens became the norm because it reduces the calf-to-calf disease exposure transmission.

Single pens also allow for controlling and monitoring individual feeding and facilitate the ease of handling individual calves. But Van Os said that science is a process of trying to make progress and “we’re raising calves in a different context than we did 50 years ago.”

Pairing calves or raising them in groups stimulates playful behavior and allows heifers to develop with a higher rank in dominance which will aid them in their “social development.”

She also outlined a study done by researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada, that showed how dairy replacement calves that were raised in pairs or groups had greater “cognitive behavioral flexibility.”

Using the model of beef calves which are raising by their mothers in groups among other older cows, the Canadian scientists tried to mimic that with dairy calves. They covered cows’ udders so calves wouldn’t suckle and allowed calves to mingle in the herd. They then tested their cognitive ability by teaching them a task related to a white or red screen with a feeding of milk as their reward.

The group-tested calves caught on to the game quickly and then when the signals were reversed, those group-tested calves had the “cognitive flexibility” to learn the change and act on it. Van Os said that as dairy farmers, we expect our cows to learn a lot of new things – new diets, social groupings, new housing elements like headlocks, milking in parlors – so anything that can be done to help cows have this learning flexibility is beneficial.

Research is showing that pairing or grouping calves earlier in their life rather than at weaning allows them to learn from each other. Research is finding that one week of age appears to be the best time to put calves together.

While not every research trial has shown a marked improvement when calves were paired or group raised, none showed that it was detrimental. Van Os said multiple studies show an increase in the intake in solid feed, an improvement in final bodyweight and an improvement in average daily gain. “The reasons we think this is important is to set calves up for success.”

Public acceptance

The other benefit to pairing or group rearing calves is that it’s a “win” in shaping public perception and earning greater public acceptance.

Van Os said University of Minnesota researchers spent time at last year’s Minnesota State Fair talking to 1,300 adults, asking them about their perceptions on various calf rearing practices. Two-thirds of those surveyed liked the paired housing and three-quarters like the small group housing. Nearly half (47 percent) disliked the single calf scenario.

“This demonstrates why it’s important to do this social science – to maintain consumer confidence,” she said.

No two farms are alike and there are many ways to accomplish pairing or grouping of milk-fed calves, she added. Some farms with individual calf hutches are simply pushing two of them together and expanding the pen for two calves. Some are using larger hutches for multiple calves.

Research questions are now focusing on reducing unwanted behavior like cross-sucking and thermal comfort in paired or grouped calves.

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