While dairy farmers might be weary of all they’ve had to do to comply with animal welfare standards over the past decade, more requirements are on the horizon. “The animal welfare train is moving rapidly, and it’s hard to keep up,” says Nigel Cook, a veterinarian and animal welfare specialist with the University of Wisconsin.
Welfare activists, well-funded and well-organized, continue to relentlessly push their agendas, he says. Activists have discovered they can influence the decisions food companies make by linking cases of animal abuse with branded food products.
“It’s all about brand name protection. Companies do not want their brand names affiliated with one of these abuse videos,” says Cook.
These food companies, in turn, push back on the companies that supply them milk and dairy products. “Milk procurement companies have enormous power to evoke rapid change,” says Cook. Farms must comply with requirements or they don’t get to ship milk. And more requirements are coming.
There is zero tolerance for poor animal handling. Farms will also be asked to provide more accountability in terms of providing more training in animal care and handling, and provide records that show that training has occurred. “Activist videos often capture poorly trained people making bad decisions,” says Cook.
Looking to the future, some of the welfare challenges on the horizon over the next two to five years include:
- Criteria for immediate euthanasia. Welfare programs will push for an earlier decision on when to euthanize, such as when cattle that are unable to maintain an upright sitting position, where they are bleeding uncontrollably, or have suffered a catastrophic injury, such as a broken limb.
- Continuous improvement in lameness scores. The FARM program currently allows for 5% of cows to be severely lame, while the standard for Dean Foods Dairy Well program is just 1%. “It is likely these thresholds will continue to strive toward zero for severe lameness—animals that are barely able to walk,” says Cook. “These represent a failure to prevent and a failure to treat promptly.”
- Hock injuries. Globally, herds have 50% of their cows with hair loss on hocks due to friction—rubs on uncomfortable surfaces. Deep bedding goes a long way in reducing these problems. “This will drive the move away from mat and mattress surfaces already seen in the Midwest, where 70% of herds have adopted deep, loose bedding,” Cook says.
- Skeletal injuries. Future audits will likely begin recording knee, neck and back injuries and broken tails. “Often, these problems have herd specific issues that need to be addressed, such as low feed rails or poor stall design,” he says.
- Tie stalls will also come under greater scrutiny because they restrict animal movement and a cow’s ability to groom herself. Cows should be given access to outside areas for 2 to 6 hours of untethered exercise, says Cook.
- Cow-calf separation at birth. “Separating calves from cows immediately after calving does not sit well with consumers,” says Cook. That may create some disease control issues, particularly for Johne’s disease and Salmonella Dublin infections. But some companies are already urging their farms to find ways to keep calves with their dams for more than 24 hours, he says.
There will also be increasing pressure to reduce reliance on hormone and antimicrobial use, which consumers couple to animal welfare discussions. “We are already seeing a steady shift toward selective dry cow therapy in low SCC herds and less antibiotic use for treatment of clinical mastitis--limiting antibiotic use to Gram-positive infections determined by culture,” he says. “We’re also seeing less reliance on reproductive hormone treatments with the integration of activity monitoring.”
While all these requirements may seem daunting, most will improve the health and well-being of cattle. “And many of these things will improve your bottom line economics as well,” says Cook.