The issue is high milk production and its effect on cow well-being. The question is, can we have our cake and eat it, too?
With a projected nine billion human mouths to feed by 2050, farmers are using breeding and technologies to enhance the productivity of their enterprises to feed the growing population, and in the dairy industry we have seen an astonishing increase in milk production per cow over the last few decades.
However, with increasing productivity and intensification of our farms comes increased skepticism from consumers and those that act on their behalf. In particular, the welfare of the animals on our farms is coming under increasing scrutiny, and we increasingly find ourselves in a position where we must justify the management practices we implement.
“Having your cake and eating it, too” is an old English proverb, which asks the question whether or not we can have the best of both worlds — in this case, high production and healthy cows. On the face of it, the notion that a high-producing dairy cow isn’t healthy seems preposterous. However, researchers, animal activists and consumers are starting to raise the question whether or not high milk production is compatible with high standards of welfare.
Animal activists view the grazing herd, with its associated greater freedom to display natural behavior and lower milk production, as a preferred method of managing dairy cattle. Recent research studies have suggested that high-producing cows are more susceptible to production diseases such as lameness and ruminal acidosis, which significantly impacts the well-being of our dairy cows. At the same time, surveys of lameness in intensively managed free-stall-housed dairy herds in North America and elsewhere are suggesting that one third or more of our cows are lame in these herds and the prevalence of hock injuries is very high.
Areas of improvement
For the last decade, our research group has focused on the impact of the environment on production diseases — lameness and fresh cow problems in particular. We have worked with the Wisconsin dairy industry to enhance management practices and improve barn design and they have responded with the remodeling of old facilities and the construction of new barns with more cow-friendly designs.
We have focused on improved stall comfort with sand bedding, building stalls appropriately sized to the type of cow being housed in each pen, making sure cows have sufficient lunge space with no impediments to normal rising and lying movements, improved bunk space (particularly for transition cows), and reduced numbers of movements between groups. We have also seen farms implement more aggressive hoof health programs, with early recognition and treatment of lame cows and regular routine preventive trimming from well-trained hoof trimmers.