No easy solutions to problems of dairy cow - Veterinary Practice
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No easy solutions to problems of dairy cow

Veterinary Practice reports on the issues discussed at the recent BVA AWF seminar.

DAIRY cattle a real ready paying a high price to meet the public demand for cheap food in terms of disease and reduced life expectancy. So is it time to call a halt on further intensification within the industry?, asked speakers at the BVA Animal Welfare Foundation seminar held in London in May.

Jon Huxley, lecturer in farm animal medicine at the Nottingham veterinary school, described the extraordinary metabolic demands faced by the modern Holstein cow . Although considerably more productive than traditional breeds, they are significantly less healthy. And with increasing economic and other pressure on agriculture, there are huge challenges for veterinary surgeons and animal welfarists in trying to achieve the Farm Animal Welfare Council’s goal of ensuring that all livestock have “a life worth living”.

Dr Huxley noted that the average size of a UK dairy herd has risen nearly 50% in the past decade to 121. That trend is likely to continue and despite the rejection of plans for an 8,000 head indoor dairy unit near Lincoln, the issue of whether or not it is acceptable to create similar massive facilities would be unlikely to go away.

Massive increase in diseases

An average cow produces 28 litres of milk per day, uses up to 3.2 times her maintenance energy demands and so it needs substantial amounts of concentrate feed just to maintain body condition. Increased productivity has been accompanied by massive increases in the prevalence of diseases like mastitis and lameness, while fertility parameters are declining by about 1% annually.

Dr Huxley said, however, that it was naive to blame such trends on the industry and he warned against making simplistic assumptions about the relationship between intensification and disease – some of the worst welfare problems occurred in small organic herds, he pointed out.

Dr Huxley also warned that it would be impossible to address animal welfare issues in isolation: they must be seen in the context of a wide range of economic, scientific and social challenges, including global warming and the Earth’s ever-growing population. He suggested that in some respects it makes sense to maintain dairy cattle indoors where they can be looked after by specialist staff and their waste products can be readily recycled.

Both management practices and genetic factors contribute to the incidence of disease in dairy cattle and may explain why mastitis rates vary from 0 to 70% in different herds. Dr Huxley believes there is a sound argument for mixing Holstein blood with traditional Freisian and similar breeds to improve resistance to disease. BVA past president Nicky Paull, however, warned that it is impossible to turn the clock back completely: if the UK wants to rely on less productive stock it would have to make up the shortfall in supply with imported milk and dairy produce –“So we would simply be exporting our welfare problems,” she said.

Mrs Paull agreed with Dr Huxley’s assertion than most of the current welfare problems in the dairy industry are the result of economic pressures and would diminish or disappear if the prices paid for milk were more reasonable. She noted that a former dairy client of her Cornish practice has sold the herd and was now making a much better living selling water from his own well.

Speakers acknowledged that there are no easy solutions to solving the problem of dairy farmers receiving inadequate prices for the milk, and the consequences that this has on the welfare of cattle. However, it was agreed that educating the public to place a higher value on food produced by high welfare systems was a vital component of any successful strategy.

Teaching empathy

It was important that any education efforts began as early as possible, teaching schoolchildren to empathise with animals and treat them with respect.

David Pritchard, a veterinary consultant on welfare issues at DEFRA, said other European countries have made considerable progress in this field.

The Austrian government has set up an independent body, called Tierschutz macht Schule , which produces educational materials for schools on a range of welfare issues.

This was created after concerns were raised about groups with extreme animal rights agendas going into schools and trying to indoctrinate the children. An impressive aspect of the Austrian initiative is its high quality control standards with input from expert veterinary and welfare advisers in preparing the literature and other materials.

Mrs Paull noted that the Austrian work was supported by that country’s education and agriculture ministries. It was essential for any similar initiative in Britain to have the credibility provided by it operating under the government “stamp”.

A key aim of the meeting was for veterinarians and welfarists to assess whether the 2006 Animal Welfare Act is working for the benefit of companion and farm animal species. Although it was recognised that the act could make a difference, there was disappointment over its performance so far.

One major concern was, that the Government has not brought forward much of the secondary legislation necessary to achieve the aims of the Act.

The election of a new government offers an opportunity to remedy those deficiencies but organisations need to be clear about their objectives and realistic in their goals, warned Christianne Glossop, chief veterinary officer for the Welsh Assembly.

She believed that ministers would be more receptive to the arguments of lobbying organisations if they came together with an agreed set of priorities.

In the final session of the meeting, attendees examined a range of current welfare issues and voted on which two should be given priority in any future discussions with the new government.

The BVA president, Professor Bill Reilly, promised that the association’s ethics and welfare group would give further consideration to those two choices and decide how best to achieve them in the current and future parliamentary sessions.

“On exotic pets we heard about the significant disease risk posed by importing exotic animals to the UK, the deep concerns of the veterinary profession that fashionable exotic pets are soon abandoned, and the worry that pet owners don’t educate themselves well enough about the animals’ needs,” he explained.

“On consumer information we heard that there is currently a lack of impartial information available to consumers to make an informed choice on the welfare of production animals used in the products on sale.

“By increasing the education of the public and the information available at the point of sale, we could have a positive impact on the welfare of millions of farm animals.”

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