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.