Do small farms really take better care of their animals?

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.