Monday, 12 December 2016 11:58

Cow welfare at the heart of best housed systems

Written by  Rick Bayne

AUSTRALIAN dairy farmers considering housing their cows should give them choices, according to a visiting Canadian animal welfare researcher.

Professor Dan Weary told a Dairy Australia webinar that the ideal option for housing involved access to outdoor areas, a quality lying environment and clean, well-managed walking areas.

And Prof. Weary said farmers should make sure that engineers designing barns know about cows.

Prof. Weary, from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, co-founded the university’s animal welfare program and co-directs the active research group.

Speaking at a Dairy Australia webinar on November 23, Prof. Weary said if farmers spend a lot of money on an indoor facility, they need to make it work well for their animals.

“There are ways of making it better but providing the animals with opportunity for choice is an important advantage of some of these systems. Even within a herd, different cows can have different preferences.”

Despite some problems, Prof. Weary said indoor housing has benefits and a role to play for Australian farmers.

“We have the idea that cows being outside on grass is the gold standard,” he said.

“People will say the ideal option is pasture, but there’s an important role still for housing. I think the ideal is providing the cow an opportunity for choice.”

Most cattle are housed in Canada “so we have lots of experience with what goes wrong”, Prof. Weary said, citing both design and management flaws.

“One thing that makes me want to bang my head – people build beautiful cubicles set for one cow per cubicle; then every sixth cubicle will have a post to support the barn roof that’s going right up the middle where the cow needs to stick her head. There’s a case where the builder isn’t thinking like a cow.”

Prof. Weary said farmers need to get the right advice at the right time.

“Once you’ve poured the concrete, you could see things like the drinker is in the wrong place or the food alley is too small so a dominant cow will block the lane and the subordinate cows will be waiting for hours. These can be fixed if they get the right advice at the right stage.”

He said a quality resting environment was essential and farmers shouldn’t skimp on bedding.

“It comes down to copious amounts of dry, well-maintained bedding,” he said.

“As long as there have been barns, there have been people selling the idea that you can house cows indoors with a low-bedding or a no-bedding system with things like mattresses or rubber mats.

“For the most part, those options don’t work very well and cause skin lesions, leg injuries and lameness.”

Designs should also include good standing areas.

“Our indoor environments are designed and built by engineers who love concrete and steel, which are highly resilient materials but not the surfaces the cow would choose,” Prof. Weary said.

“A lot of time standing on concrete is very hard on their feet, especially if the surface is wet, and especially if it is covered in a layer of manure slurry which is very often found in indoor environments.”

Getting the design right is only half the battle, as management is just as important.

“It’s one thing to say you have a deep bedding system, but you have to manage that so the surface remains dry, clean and even for the cows,” Prof. Weary said.

“It’s the same thing for standing surfaces – keeping manure of the surfaces is a good start. If you’re using a housed environment, it requires a high level of management.”
Professor Weary encouraged farmers to provide access to outdoor areas.

“An ideal option is some outdoor access to pasture,” he said.

“Think of it as a rest area for the cow so they are no longer standing on dangerous concrete surfaces.”

North American cows with the dual option tend to spend the warmer parts of the day in the shade of the barn and then time outside on pasture, mostly at night.

“From the cow’s perspective, the opportunity for choice to be on grass when they want and be out of the sun and in a dry environment can be very important. If well managed, it is a relief from extreme weather.”

The same principles apply to feed pads.

“If you have a cement pad to keep cows away from wet pastures, does it provide a suitable area for cows to lie down in? Concrete is not suitable and wet concrete and concrete with manure on top is particularly damaging for their feet,” he said.

Bedded surfaces must be able to drain properly and stay reasonably dry.

Prof. Weary said Australian dairy has a big advantage in its green pasture based image.

However, he said that non-pasture based options are important in regions with lesser pasture growth.

“Even areas with excellent pasture, having a well-managed, well-designed alternative area can be important for the cows and to provide respite and protection for the grass itself,” he added.

“One responsibility of farmers is to provide protection to animals, including from high levels of heat, lack of shade or very wet muddy areas.”

The full webinar can be viewed at www.dairyaustralia.com.au/People-and-skills/Education-and-careers/Webinars

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NZ strengthens rules on bobby calves

NEW regulations to strengthen the law on the management and treatment of bobby calves are being introduced in New Zealand, after the country’s Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy announced changed last month.

Bobby calf footage shocks NZ dairy

THE New Zealand dairy industry is grappling with an animal welfare crisis after footage was released of cruelty against bobby calves.

The practices revealed in the video by an animal rights group have appalled the country’s dairy industry bodies.

Both DairyNZ and Federated Farmers have spoken out against the practices – but say 95% of farmers are compliant with animal welfare codes.

The practices were revealed in video footage recorded by animal rights group Farmwatch and released as part of a SAFE public campaign launched against dairy farming.

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle said cruel and illegal practices were in no way condoned or accepted by the industry as part of dairy farming.

"We are shocked and farmers are too," said Mr Mackle. "We will be asking questions of everyone involved. Farmers don't see what goes on when calves leave their farm and we need to be holding the transport operators and processing plants to account to ensure bad practices get stamped out of our industry.

"Our surveys show that 95% of farmers are compliant with all animal welfare codes and they take great care of their animals including calves.

“We obviously want to see that even higher because the dairy industry takes its animal welfare responsibilities seriously and we are committed to farming to high standards.

“There are range of industry initiatives already in place and we will be boosting our actions with other groups to ensure the care of calves."

NZ’s Federated Farmers' dairy section chair, Andrew Hoggard said "farmers have to farm within strict animal welfare rules and the vast majority care for their animals humanely and responsibly".

He says the footage released by SAFE and Farmwatch includes some appalling behaviour, by a minority of farmers but also by transport companies and slaughterhouse workers.

"This is something we and the industry will not tolerate,” Mr Hoggard said. Federated Farmers each season strongly reinforces to its members that the highest standards of animal welfare must apply when dealing with all calves.

“The federation will also put resources behind any industry initiatives to review the handling, transport and processing of bobby calves,” he said.

Dairy Companies Association of New Zealand executive director Kimberly Crewther said that compliance with the New Zealand codes of welfare is important to dairy companies.

"These codes are internationally recognised as robust. Where there are breaches we fully support and expect Ministry for Primary Industries' compliance action," she said.

The NZ Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is investigating the alleged mistreatment.

ADF swift to respond

Austrina Dairy Farmers  was quick to respond to the NZ media reports issuing a statement on December 1 to reassure the sector and dairy consumers:

“The Australian dairy industry has been shocked by the cruelty shown in the footage. Any mistreatment of animals, including this cruel behaviour, is completely unacceptable.

Australian Dairy Farmers (ADF) and its farmer members take their responsibilities for animal welfare seriously and are committed to continuous improvement in their animal husbandry practices. All animals, including calves must be treated with care.

This footage in no way represents reality for the majority of people in the Australian dairy industry responsible for calves and cows.

We want to reassure our customers and consumers to know we are actively engaging with farmers, manufacturers and transporters to ensure such practices do not happen on Australian dairy farms.

The Australian dairy industry supports the draft Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Cattle as well as the Land Transport Standards and Guidelines.

These were developed in partnership with the animal welfare groups and government, and provide industry with clear animal health and welfare standards.

The dairy industry expects that all persons managing livestock abide by these standards and is committed to working with farmers to ensure best practice is observed on farm.

ADF, in collaboration with Dairy Australia, and other industry partners continues to work closely with transporters and the meat industry to ensure our cows and calves are well looked after. We also continue to work with industry, government and animal welfare groups such as the RSPCA to ensure the wellbeing of our herds in all farming systems.”

Dairy Australia’s guidelines in relation to the welfare of bobby calves can be found at
www.dairyaustralia.com.au/Animal-management/Animal-welfare/Bobby-calves.aspx 

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