Animal production

Welfare of cattle

Increasing consumer demands for milk quality have necessitated changes in the genotype and phenotype of dairy cows to increase their milk yield and improve product performance.

Increasing consumer demands for milk quality have necessitated changes in the genotype and phenotype of dairy cows to increase their milk yield and improve product performance.

Unfortunately, these changes have affected the health of dairy cows by increasing the incidence of emerging mammary gland disease or limb disease, directly affecting their welfare levels. At the same time, this does not mean that high-yielding cows are now more susceptible to disease. They are physiologically adapted to high performance, but require much better environmental and nutritional conditions and caring care. Standards of animal care, regardless of the housing system, should include: treatment, resting opportunities (bedding stations), feeding and watering, exercise opportunities and substrate quality (not only stations, but also corridors to milking parlours), environmental hygiene in the broadest sense, hygiene and care of the mammary gland and the principles of bio-security. There is an urgent need to develop a scientific basis and practices for the management of sick animals. In the case of transported animals that cannot stand up after a journey, the measures should be clearly defined by law, which is not specifically addressed in such cases (Council Regulation 1/2005).

Current medical methods make it possible to undertake therapy in so-called lying (lagging) cows. At the same time, appropriate care procedures should be implemented (Pulton et al., 2016). Standards of care for sick animals should be differentiated according to the severity of the disease process. For cows that cannot stand without assistance but can walk when lifted, the following is recommended: keeping away from slippery surfaces, isolation from other animals in the herd, lifting (once or twice a day), and systematic monitoring. The presence of debilitating diseases is an indication for euthanasia. This is because these diseases themselves cause suffering to the animal and, in addition, the price, quantity and quality of their meat is low. The Law on the Protection of Animals stipulates the necessity of the immediate killing of animals that, although they can continue to live, this only involves their suffering and enduring pain (Journal of Laws 1997 No. 111, item 724, as amended).

Canadian cattle welfare experts indicate that, in the long term, directions for implementing animal-friendly practices should focus on two issues: access to pasture/range for cows and solutions and innovations for maintaining and raising calves and cows (von Keyserlingk and Weary 2017). Access to pasture and paddocks is extremely important in terms of welfare. In this context, the influence of the environment (e.g. heat stress), animal movement and behavioural behaviour are important. Cows often choose to take their feed ration in the barn rather than in the pasture as long as it is palatable, adequate for their nutritional needs etc. Some studies indicate that, in terms of welfare, in addition to the cows’ access to the barn facilities, the outdoor areas do not necessarily need to be grass, or they may also be areas covered with special grass varieties resistant to grazing, comfortable as a substrate for lying or standing, and not just a source of nutrients.

Milk and milk products from pasture-raised cows have more favourable quality and sensory characteristics.

Animal welfare education is an element that creates not only public attitudes, but also organisational and breeding activities in cattle herds. In the future, further educational action involving breeders, veterinarians, feed and dairy workers and consumers will continue to be necessary. The work should focus on the expectations of cattle farmers, including in terms of new practices and solutions (von Keyserlingk and Weary 2017).

Given the complexity of the problem, in future all methods to improve cattle welfare must simultaneously take into account ethical, behavioural, physiological and economic aspects. Cattle welfare indicators

In the case of cattle, there are 5 practical indicators that tell us the level of welfare. These are:

  • good health,
  • normal growth and development,
  • good fertility,
  • high productivity,
  • freedom to exhibit natural behaviour, including freedom of movement, social contacts in the herd, etc.

In many countries, lameness, mutilations, mortality, lung diseases, poor condition and aspects of care and treatment intensity, as well as tethered housing, are mentioned among the main welfare problems in dairy cows. With regard to calves, the key elements are environmental and housing conditions, nutrition and zootechnical-veterinary procedures (deconditioning, castration) including treatment.

The most important risk factors for deterioration of calf welfare can include (Vasseur et al., 2010):

  1. lack of supervision during childbirth and lack of assistance at delivery,
  2. lack of neonatal viability assessment and umbilical cord disinfection,
  3. too late administration of first colostrum, failure to assess its quality and failure to assess the transfer of passive immunity,
  4. feeding ‘waste’ milk or not providing enough milk (restrictive feeding),
  5. deconditioning (including not using painkillers and anti-inflammatories) and removing excess teats at too late an age,
  6. weaning too early and failure to control starter feed intake when calves are weaned,
  7. prolonged housing of calves singly or other poor environmental conditions. Criteria for assessing the welfare of cattle

The individual criteria are highly dependent on the maintenance and management system of the herd.

  1. Behaviour. Certain behaviours may indicate a welfare problem. These include reduced feed intake, altered locomotion and lameness, altered lying time, altered respiratory rate and panting, coughing, shivering, excessive grooming and displaying stereotypic or other abnormal behaviour.
  2. Health. Good health means the absence of disease. Morbidity rates, including infectious and metabolic diseases, lameness, peri-parturient and post-parturient complications, incidence of injuries, above recognised threshold values, can be direct or indirect indicators of herd-wide animal welfare. Scoring of condition, or lameness, and analysis of milk quality, can provide additional information.
  3. Mortality and failure rates. Mortality and failure rates affect life expectancy and, like morbidity rates, can be direct or indirect indicators of animal welfare. These indicators should be recorded on a regular basis, including monthly, annually or in relation to key breeding activities in the production cycle. A section can be useful in determining the cause of a fall. For example: according to the ERBS standard, the limit for falls according to the Polish Sustainable Beef Platform is only 1.5%.
  4. Changes in body weight, body condition and milk yield. In growing animals, changes in body weight beyond the expected growth rate, especially weight loss, are indicators of poor health or compromised animal welfare. Future milk yield of cows can be affected by malnutrition or inadequate nutrition at different stages of rearing. In lactating animals, body condition outside the acceptable range, a significant change in body weight and a significant decrease in milk yield can be indicators of poor welfare.
  5. Reproductive indices. Decreased reproduction compared to expected values for the breed may indicate welfare problems. Examples include an excessively long inter-calving interval, a low fertilisation rate, difficult births, uterine inflammations, retention of the placenta, early embryo death, loss of fertility, or lack of libido in bulls.
  6. General and physical condition. Physical appearance. Physical appearance can be an indicator of animal health and welfare, as well as of housing and feeding conditions. Indicators of reduced welfare: presence of external parasites, abnormal coat colour or hair loss, excessive faecal soiling (cleanliness), swellings, injuries or lesions, presence of secretions (e.g. from the nose, eyes, genital tract), abnormal posture (e.g. cocked back, lowered head), emaciation or dehydration.
  7. Zootechnical and veterinary procedures. Complications arising from common procedures, such as surgical and grooming procedures, performed on dairy cattle to facilitate their management, improve human safety and animal welfare (e.g. dehorning, hoof correction) and treat certain conditions (e.g. displacement of the digestive tract). However, if these procedures are not performed correctly, animal welfare can be compromised. Indicators of such problems can be:
    • postoperative infection, swelling and pain behaviour,
    • reduced feed and water intake,
    • body condition and weight loss after treatment,
    • morbidity and mortality. Main problems of calf and cow welfare

Calves housed in group pens, where animals are frequently moved in and out, are characterised not only by lower weight gains but also by a higher incidence of respiratory diseases (Costa et al., 2015). It is therefore recommended to apply the all-in-all-out principle (full-room – empty-room) including disinfection and to group calves in groups of similar age. The incidence of disease also depends on the methods and hygiene of feeding, colostrum feeding, ventilation, which determines the appropriate microclimate of the premises, and health monitoring (early diagnosis of problems), type and quality of feed used. By taking these factors into account, the risk of health problems can be effectively minimised.

Measures to improve the welfare of calves include reducing exposure to stress, pain and suffering. A procedure that constitutes exposure of animals to pain is decortication, especially by surgical or thermal methods. Numerous studies indicate that performing deconditioning is associated with the occurrence of pain and stress, regardless of the age of the calves and the method. Calves can experience post-decortication pain for up to 27 hours after decortication, and wounds around horn bundles can remain sensitive for up to 75 hours. Lower levels of stress were reported after chemical decortication. Chemical decortication (application of a corrosive paste) also causes severe pain in the first 15-30 minutes, up to an hour (Braz et al., 2012). Altered animal behaviour is observed for up to 4 hours (Vickers et al., 2005). In practice, the inappropriate use of caustics can cause severe tissue damage as well as skin burns to those performing the treatment. In Poland, thermal decongestion is the most commonly used method, and pain cover – although recommended – is not mandatory and is not widely used. The pain felt by the animal after thermal deconditioning is greater than during castration, as calves showed reduced feed intake for six hours longer (Ballou et al., 2013).

Current recommendations include the administration of analgesics to all animals, for all surgical procedures and for the removal of horns and horn bundles. However, this is still not a legal requirement.

The use of analgesics will ensure that animals’ pain levels are minimised after all treatments, ultimately leading to faster recovery, improved welfare and reduced production losses.

On large-scale farms, the incidence of disease is high, affecting cows (especially the periparturient and early lactation period) and calves that are in the preweaning period. Deterioration of cattle welfare increases the incidence of disease. In this aspect, health and welfare problems should be considered at the individual and population (whole herd) level. Diseases of the mammary gland are among the most common disorders of dairy cows and have the greatest impact on reducing milk yield and quality. At the same time, the amount of antibiotics used in the prevention and treatment of mastitis and the emergence of antibiotic resistance among bacteria is of increasing importance (Pol and Tuegg 2007). The second group is hoof diseases. The pain accompanying hoof diseases is usually chronic and affects not only the welfare and well-being of the cattle, but also a decrease in feed intake, milk yield and a higher risk of infection of the animals in the herd. The incidence of problems depends on the housing system, hoof hygiene, as well as feeding, and the type of hoof disease depends most additionally on ground hygiene and hoof care. In large-scale herd management, late intervention is associated with chronic pain and suffering for the animals.

A very important aspect of welfare is nutrition. Among the most important factors are the feeding regime, availability, type and quality of feed. There are a couple of calf feeding systems in which it is possible to use different milk replacers, preferably of high quality with functional additives. The use of whole milk also has its advantages (e.g. the content of biologically active compounds). Studies in recent years indicate that higher liquid feed intakes and higher starter feed intake before weaning result in better feed conversion, higher weight gains, and higher weights at mating (Shamay et al., 2005). Low milk intake, means starvation and therefore lack of welfare and lack of expected production effects. A proper accelerated growth programme can result in higher first lactation yields and a reduction in the percentage of culls. This is presumably due to the effect on the development of the parenchymal tissue of the mammary gland. However, regardless of the feeding regime and the type of liquid feed used, preweaning weight gains of more than 0.5 kg/day can contribute to increased milk yield in the first lactation (Gelsinger et al., 2016).

The use of limited amounts of milk replacer ‘forces’ calves to take solid feed. Hungry calves react nervously to the appearance of service and vocalise. It has been shown that already immediately after birth, when separation from the cow occurs, vocalisation can be reduced or abolished by providing more colostrum or milk (Thomas et al., 2001). Non-feeding and/or unnatural feeding has been shown to result in behaviours (suckling) that can cause navel inflammation and ear infections. This can also lead to the formation of hairballs (pilobezoars) in the digestive tract. Pilobezoars impede the movement of contents in the digestive tract, which can cause the calf to die.