Do small farms really take better care of their animals?

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The simplicity of an earlier day is brought home in a painting by French artist Jean-Francois Millet in which a couple of peasant men are shown carrying a newborn calf on a stretcher-like device laden with hay. The calf looks healthy as it is carried from the fields where it was born.  The men, meanwhile, walk slowly as they carefully attend to the business of “bringing the calf home.”   

It is a pleasant image, reminding us of the bond between humans and animals ― a sense of stewardship.

Many of the popular images of farm animals over the years have had a small-farm backdrop. That, in turn, has led many people to believe ― rightly or wrongly ― that animals receive more individualized attention and better care on smaller farms.

But a growing body of research refutes that notion.    

Best-management practices

Perhaps the strongest evidence that large farms provide a high level of care comes from a National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) report released in October 2007.

In that report, farms were surveyed on a number of management practices, and it turned out that the larger-sized farms were more likely to engage in best-management practices than smaller farms.

For instance, it is recommended that calves receive 4 quarts of colostrum within the first one to two hours of life. Yet, many farms fall short of this goal, delivering colostrum a little later than that ― and small farms are guiltier of this than large farms. According to the NAHMS research, calves on small farms with fewer than 100 cows get their first colostrum feeding 3.4 hours after birth, on average, while those on large farms (500 cows or more) get theirs 2.8 hours after birth. 

Only 1.1 percent of the small farms in the NAHMS survey routinely monitor serum proteins in calves to determine if the animals are off to a good start, compared to 14.5 percent of the large dairies that use this practice. 

Having a specified maternity area is another best-management practice. In the NAHMS survey, 51.5 percent of the small farms have maternity housing that is separate from the lactating cows. Yet, 90.4 percent of the large dairies have this feature.

“So, we have a bunch of good management practices and these seem to be used more often on larger farms,” animal welfare expert Dan Weary, of the University of British Columbia, told those attending the joint annual meeting of the American Dairy Science Association and the American Society of Animal Science last week in Indianapolis, Ind.

Possible explanations

A few years ago, researchers from the University of British Columbia and Novus International found that the large farms they studied in the northeastern U.S. and California were doing a better job of minimizing lameness in cows than small farms. This was further documented in an article last January in the Journal of Dairy Science which noted “large herds are more likely to adopt management practices that are beneficial for lameness,” such as less restrictive neck rails and more water space per cow. 

Weary, who participated in that study, notes there are several reasons why large farms may have an advantage:

  • They are more likely to have specialized staff and training.
  • They use data to make decisions and preferentially benefit from expensive technology that provide data.
  • Large farms are more likely to be profitable, which reduces welfare risks to the animals.

Well-known animal-welfare expert Temple Grandin, who spoke in the same session of the American Dairy Science Association meeting as Weary, echoed his sentiments on large farms vs. small farms.

“Big does not equal bad,” Grandin said.

Yet, one area where large dairies may fall down relative to small dairies, she said, is calf care.

Certainly, there is room for improvement. For instance, dairies might want to consider opening up their free-stall barns during certain times of the day to allow cows access to pasture, according to Weary. He said studies have indicated that cows prefer to do this at night ― say between midnight and 5 a.m. ― so it can be accomplished without interrupting other activities.  

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David Nash, DVM    
TN  |  July, 18, 2013 at 08:37 AM

In my experience, small farms seldom have the facilities or expertise to provide the best animal husbandry

Maine, USA  |  July, 18, 2013 at 08:48 AM

As much as I appreciate the message of this article as it pertains to my farm's situation (we are larger than average for our area, and work very hard to take excellent care of our cows), I want to be careful that in the process that we don't throw our smaller counterparts under the bus so to speak. I know of many small farms that take excellent care of their cattle, and have the right mindset that the cows come first. As an industry, we've come a long way, so lets keep up the good work!

NC  |  July, 18, 2013 at 11:10 AM

National data also show that small farms are more likely to have higher SCC scores and higher Plate Count scores, indicative of poorer quality health care and poorer sanitation.

wi  |  July, 18, 2013 at 11:11 AM

I agree completely with Dairymaineaic. I know several local smaller farms, particularly farms operated by the younger generation, that do an excellent job caring for their animals and getting excellent milk from their cows. I also know a few farms operated by younger people who try their very best, but are limited by labor, capital, or facilities. They would like perfectly run dairies, but lack a piece of the puzzle.

WI  |  July, 18, 2013 at 11:47 AM

I own and run a small farm, milking 52 cows with about 100 head of youngstock. Statistics are fine, but they don't tell the whole story. I know large farms that are poorly run and that eventually get into money problems and go out of business, and that don't take as good care as possible of their animals. I could say the same about small farms, but there are very few farms of my size left. I will put any of my farm's vital numbers up against any farm, large or small. I take good care of my animals, and yes, I am profitable. Maybe not as much as a large farm would be, but with a low SCC and plate count and a good test, I make a decent living.

OR  |  July, 18, 2013 at 01:33 PM

Man, Dairy Herd Mgt seems kinda biased...emphasizing statistics about advantages of larger farms, but no details about the areas where "large dairies may fall down in". Anytime where's there's positive information about large dairies...magazine's gonna get their hands on it. I understand your point DH Mag, maybe getting producers re-evaluating their management& standards. but I have a hard time with articles that sway one way or other about animal care relating to herd size. I like statistics on separate maternity areas, I think is significant. But herds that monitor calves serum protein...? seems poor measure of "large vs. small". 14.5% of large dairies do it, but what about putting it in perspective that 85.5% are not doing it, and 99% of small dairies don't either. &why? I see 10,000+cows monthly, having been on 50+ facilities, my observation is size doesn't matter. It's mgt. Though there all sorts of factors, and no perfection, generally speaking people classify dairies in their mind as going into 1 of either 2 categories: well-managed, or poorly managed, Truly the dairies that stand out, that have strong-looking cows, hardly any lame cows coming in parlor, good consistent milking procedures, cows with less manure on legs/udder, having <200 SCC, high production, are of all size herds. But if you look at it this way, in a large -scale herd there is a lot more at stake. When management is poor, it affects the whole entire herd, and if on a really big herd, it's hurtin' in all sorts of directions. Huge herds of healthy cows is a LOT better than than the herds of same size of horrible management. It's tough to see rinky-dink herds w/lots of issues, but no comparison to a big herd with big problems.

ny  |  July, 18, 2013 at 02:12 PM

I agree, we are larger then average too, but we do not need to fan the debate on large vs small internally and give those who destroy us more reasons.

new york  |  July, 18, 2013 at 03:25 PM

So lets pile on the small farm. How about we take a look at if large farms pay a living wage to their employees? I always hear that large farms have a problem finding labor. Pay more. 20 years ago there were over 100,000 more dairymen milking cows than there are now. I blame the mega farm for this. Pay a low wage and let the government supplement your work force with food stamps, medicaid, etc.. Sure large farms like best management practices it takes the heat off of them developing their own. Where I went to college there were about two students for every cow so it is easy to come up with Best-management practices without having to worry about labor.

Wisconsin  |  July, 18, 2013 at 07:31 PM have my vote for a concise and positive message. TJ, you have my vote, too. David Nash, I guess you're being fair if we limit your experience to Tennessee...or are you?? I'm a dairy veterinarian and a dairy producer in Wisconsin, and I could never say what you've said as regards my experience with small farms in Wisconsin. Alot of small farms and the people managing them DO have the facilities and the expertise to deliver excellent animal husbandry...without question! Jack in NC---careful with those averages...the article is using averages also, and they really don't give us an adequate picture of what's really going on...there are many "small" farms in Wisconsin whose farmers maintain cell counts under 100,000 and have routinely low bacteria counts and effect excellent sanitation in their milking procedures, milk storage, and cow housing. Ling...yeah, I liked the statistic about measuring serum antibodies in the calves! like, come on! I don't measure serum antibodies in my calves are healthy...I spend time instead on vaccinating my dry cows, feeding them a high quality ration, and training our employees to tend calvings, report calvings which aren't progressing, warm colostrum correctly, and tube the colostrum within 1 hour of calf's birth (so it practically gets done withing 2 hr outside)--that's the measure of my dairy husbandry--that I trained/double-checked/retrained our employees to do the basics well and realize why so--call me old-fashioned. Notice neither large nor small dairies are meeting, on average, the 2 hour time limit, but the best managers in both groups of farms ARE. Perhaps the author needs some practical instruction in deciding which figures are garbage.

Wisconsin  |  July, 18, 2013 at 07:51 PM

humor me, I posting a second time, just to be complete... Dick in're right. I think the article is disguising the truth, like several others commented on. The words small, large, family, factory, and so forth don't describe us and shouldn't be used to divide us. Frank in NY...if it's as hot out there as it is in Wisconsin this whole long week, then I think you must just be tired. Look, there are lots of dairies which do not pay well, and lots which do. Having good crop land to raise our own inputs, government policy, the CME trade, and middleman margins have a lot more to do with our net income than does employee wages. Let's face it, farming hours just aren't very attractive to most Americans anymore; hiring is expensive, especially if employee turnover is high. Those of us who like to spend our time in husbandry and can teach husbandry, work at our jobs for alot of reasons most Americans have never counted as available to them in their own employment decisions. Here's to the excellent animal husbandry still to be found in our industry! It's out there. It might even be a gift a farmer gave to an underpaid immigrant kid who never had the chance before to know good husbandry. I think that is what's happened these past 15 years here in it talent discovery or call it relieved dairy farmers...finally found employees who will do the job well and stay with it and show up everyday if those expectations are laid out and enforced. LET'S STICK TOGETHER...farming isn't easy, and the numbers in this article aren't really worth the paper they got printed on, especially if they are devisive.

PA, USA  |  July, 19, 2013 at 08:22 AM

One fact that was not mentioned is how the longevity of dairy cattle has substantially decreased along with the rise of the larger dairy. Many cows are culled after their first lactation. Please explain why this is occurring if large farms take better care of their cattle than small farms. Not too long ago it was common for many dairies to have several cows with multiple lactations.

wisconsin  |  July, 22, 2013 at 09:07 PM

a hidden factor of longevity is whether there are replacements raised on farm (in other words, internal growth, not purchased) which are putting pressure on culling rate, and cows are culled as dairy replacements, not because they are sick or dead. so, I don't know whether to agree with your claim that longevity is less in larger herds...but I think you bring up a valid number to measure and consider. To look at longevity, I think we would really need to consider "reason for culling", and that would point us more to why longevity is increased or decreased in a particular herd, "large" or "small"--would point us to management asset, or deficit to be remedied. Another factor to be reckoned with would be genetics and identified parentage or not...whether the animals have been bred with longevity in mind. I don't know...I just keep trying to give every cow the individual care she needs, no matter how many cows I have managed. I once gave a young veterinary school graduate going in to dairy practice, a print of some Holsteins in a holding area, with one in particular having her nose up as if sniffing and investigating the viewer (Bonnie Mohr)--the print is titled "Attitude"; and I advised my young colleague to remember that in her career, whether she is caring for a large herd or small herd, all herds are made up of individuals, which need indvidual care.

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