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Producers, researchers, industry address cattle welfare

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 20 November 2012

The first-ever Dairy Cattle Welfare Symposium was hosted last month by the University of Guelph and The Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare in Guelph, Ontario. The event attracted 300 participants from around the world and served as a forum between dairy producers, researchers and allied industry.

Today’s dairy industry faces a number of challenges, a few of which can be addressed through animal welfare.



Jeffrey Rushen of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said in his keynote address that by acknowledging animal welfare standards, dairy producers will likely see continued acceptance by consumers and the public of dairy farming, as well as increased profitability as a result of reducing economic losses due to poor animal welfare.

Having dairy producers spearhead the development of animal welfare standards is good, he added; however, it does risk the potential of eliminating consumer concerns.

Click here to read the U.S. Progressive Dairyman version of this article. Scroll down to see a photo slideshow from the event.

To aid in determining what are the most serious welfare issues affecting farm animals, including dairy cattle, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been developing a “risk assessment” approach.

The main welfare issues identified by EFSA are genetic selection for high production ignoring health traits, withholding necessary veterinary care, poor stall design and/or inadequate bedding, inadequate ration composition or transition feeding, poor air quality and zero-grazing.

Some issues are specific to type of housing. For freestall herds, concerns include fewer stalls than cows, inadequate floor where cows walk and insufficient feeding places. Being tied without exercise is a concern for tiestall facilities.


Rushen stressed that any welfare standard developed needs to be based on independent scientific advice from a broad range of scientific disciplines – animal behaviour, veterinary medicine, nutrition, etc.

The symposium continued with researchers addressing the work they are doing to better define welfare issues.

Story continues below photo slideshow.


Pasture access
Giving cows access to pasture, like many welfare topics, is a complex issue. “We know it is one the public values – but how do we make it work?” said Nina von Keyserlingk of the University of British Columbia.

Her colleague Daniel Weary shared information obtained from Cow Views – a Web-based virtual “town hall” meeting – where a large majority of respondents (73 percent) said cows should be given access to pasture. More than 20 percent were neutral on the topic and only 6 percent said no.

As von Keyserlingk mentioned, this could be hard to implement on farms not set up for pasture. Yet, it does have the potential to reduce lameness.


In a project she worked on, freestall farms in New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont that provided cows access to pasture at some time during the dry period had half as many cases of clinical lameness in their high-producing cows compared to farms that did not send cows out to pasture.

Dry, transition and sick cows
Sandra Bertulat at Freie Universität Berlin in Germany evaluated the effect of dryoff on stress levels in differently yielding dairy cows. She learned that udder pressure peaked for all cows in the study at two days after sudden dryoff.

Only the cows producing more than 20 kilograms of milk per day recorded udder pressures equal to that of just prior to milking, suggesting that high-producing cows may need to undergo a gradual dryoff.

In her presentation, von Keyserlingk shared how a Ph.D. candidate she works with designed a preference test to determine if cows preferred to calve in an enclosed area or in the vicinity of other cows.

Katy Proudfoot found that the cows prefer the enclosure two to one. Cows calving during the day primarily drove that statistic; very little difference was seen amongst cows calving at night.

Continuing the experiment in Denmark, Proudfoot covered three-quarters of individual calving pens with plywood and noticed cows again had a preference of calving in the corner of the pen, blocked from view of cows in the adjacent group pen.

Proudfoot later explained that while performing the second study, she noticed one particular cow remained in the corner for a longer amount of time post-calving.

That cow was then diagnosed with metritis. This prompted Proudfoot to do a study of 35 postpartum cows, where she discovered healthy cows spent about half of their time in the corner, decreasing that amount over time. Sick cows also spent half of their time in the corner at first but then increased the time they spent in the corner.

In the United Kingdom, slightly more than a third of the national herd is lame on any single day, reported Becky Whay of Bristol University. In reviewing journals, she learned that there is a substantial amount of research that has been done and the larger problem is implementing on farm what has been learned through the research.

She began working with farmers in the United Kingdom on a three-year project to improve foot hygiene, foot bathing, standing/lying time and walking surfaces.

Over the life of the project, 73 percent of farms reduced lameness, with more than half reducing lameness by more than 10 percent. She said the greatest reduction was seen in farms that started with an initially high prevalence.

Through the process, she said she learned treatment should be considered in the prevention of lameness and gaining the farmer’s perspective is valuable to implementing change.

In working on a lameness project, von Keyserlingk reported that freestall farms that use deep bedding had half as many cases of clinical lameness. Hock lesions and injuries were also less on those farms.

“The problem was mattresses with no bedding,” she said. “Mattresses can work but you need lots of bedding and you need to keep it there.”

At the University of Minnesota, Marcia Endres found similar results comparing recycled manure solids to mattresses. Lameness prevalence and hock lesions were both lower for deep-bedded freestalls with manure solids.

Endres did note, however, that farms using these solids do need to make floor surfaces less slippery to prevent injury, as well as rake the stalls to prevent a higher incidence of clinical mastitis.

Another barn option discussed was the compost bedded pack barn. Randi Black from the University of Kentucky said in this facility locomotion scores were lower than those observed in previous freestall studies.

Somatic cell counts were improved from the year before in a freestall and the producer observed additional benefits, including increased cow comfort and cleanliness.

Pain management
Hans Coetzee of Iowa State University addressed the subject of pain management.

“Pain recognition is difficult in stoic species like cattle,” Coetzee said. “Unlike humans, facial expression is not a good way of assessing pain in dairy cattle.”

Because of this, he has turned to methods like digital thermography, algometer, heart rate and variability, substance-P, accelerometers, pressure mats, cortisol and electron cephalography (EEG) to measure pain in dairy cattle, particularly for the events of castration and dehorning.

In every instance, pain – or symptoms thereof – were detected. Therefore, Coetzee recommends adhering to the three S’s – suppress, substitute and soothe.

  •  Pain can be suppressed by selecting polled genetics to avoid the need for dehorning, using sexed semen to reduce the need for castration and genetically selecting for good claw health to reduce the prevalence of lameness. 
  • Methods of substitution can include dehorning and castrating at early age, freeze-branding instead of hot-branding and low-stress handling to reduce distress and injury.
  •  Analgesics can be used to soothe pain. In this instance, Coetzee said there is no shortage of options for Europeans; however, only flunixin and aspirin can be used in the U.S., both of which require veterinarian consent.

Meloxicam is an option in Europe, Canada and extra-label in the U.S. In one trial, Coetzee found the use of meloxicam during dehorning lowered the levels of substance-P, as well as heart rate. After 10 days, calves given meloxicam had significantly higher average daily gain.

As Canada, the U.S. and the European Union continue to develop animal welfare standards to be applied on farms, research projects like these will be used to define the criteria.

“To allow farms to get better they need to work with data,” von Keyserlingk said, “because if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”  PD