Assessing Cow Comfort

October 3, 2011 01:36 PM
Assessing Cow Comfort

Cow care through the eyes of an animal welfare auditor

Clipboard in hand, James Reynolds walks through a 5,000-cow dairy near Hanford, Calif.—and likes what he sees.

The sand-bedded freestalls are not only wide but 4" longer than the 48" recommended for Holsteins. Under the roof, water sprinklers are cooling cows in the September heat. The walkways are clean. There are exits if cows decide to wander into the adjacent open lot. Fresh water fills the troughs, and feed lanes are heaped with rations.

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But mostly, Reynolds likes what he sees in the cows. They’re lying comfortably in their shaded freestall beds, calm and curious as visitors approach. Body condition scores are good: Cows are neither too thin nor too fat. He sees no signs of lameness or hock lesions.

"This dairy owner is doing things right," says Reynolds, a professor of large animal medicine and welfare at Western University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Pomona, Calif., and longtime advocate for animal welfare.

The dairy is one of 2,500 that the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Program has evaluated since 2010—part of at least 50% of the U.S. milk supply that has implemented FARM so far.

The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) created the voluntary program to verify to consumers that U.S. milk producers humanely care for their animals.

Reynolds is passionate about safeguarding the well-being of dairy cows. He supports the FARM program and its three key components: serving animals; providing a process that con-sumers will find credible and in the animals’ best interests; and ensuring it’s fair and practical for farm owners.

"All three must work for the program to succeed," Reynolds says. "The FARM program does that. It’s a very good, straightforward, practical evaluation of the welfare of animals on a dairy."
FARM’s second-party evaluations are conducted by veterinarians, coop-erative field staffs and university Extension people. The two- to three-hour evaluations include a 77-point questionnaire for the dairy’s manager and an assessment of operations and cow conditions. Evaluators later
provide the dairy a status report and recommendations for improvement.

Reynolds believes the FARM program is helping educate producers to manage animal welfare, not fear it. Its second-party evaluations are neither pass nor fail, and it’s up to the dairy owner to implement any suggestions. An evaluator can point out a lameness or mastitis problem and leave the solution to the owner.

"A fix sometimes involves only a small part of the dairy," Reynolds says. "You don’t have to fix it all at once."

cow comfort2Third-party objective evaluations began on Sept. 6 on randomly selected U.S. dairies. These are being conducted by Validus, FARM’s official third-party verifier. NMPF expects the initial round of third-party verifications to be completed by year-end.

Reynolds works with Validus as an independent contractor for third-party audits of dairy, swine and poultry operations around the world.

"Animal welfare has everything to do with the owner’s attitude," Reynolds says. "It’s in the producer’s best interest to assure good animal welfare because it results in improved milk production, fewer culls, more calves and lower costs. Animal welfare is completely integrated into the economics of a dairy."

Cow comfort is the most important part of animal welfare, Reynolds adds, and cows must be comfortable both physically and mentally. He fully expects pushback from some producers about including "mental" comfort in animal welfare requirements. But he insists it’s necessary.

"Cow comfort is not just about managing drylots, freestalls, walkways or nutrition," Reynolds says. "Cows also have to be in a calm environment without fear of predators or people."

U.S. dairies are making great strides with animal welfare, but they still have more to do. "Ten percent of adult cows on U.S. dairies die," Reynolds says. "That’s terrible. A good dairy should see a mortality rate of less than 3%. It all goes back to cow comfort and management. We know what animals need and want, and we know when animal care is good and when it is not. It’s our responsibility to ensure good welfare for animals."

A Passing Grade

Land O’Lakes’ member dairies in California are generally scoring well on second-party FARM evaluations.

"The vast majority of these dairies do a good job of taking care of their animals," says Terry Lehenbauer of the Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center in Tulare, Calif., and a second-party evaluator for Land O’Lakes’ 220 member herds in California’s Central Valley. "Compared to the national average, we see fewer lame cows, better body scores and less overcrowding." Still, he adds, some improvement is needed.

Hygiene—Some dairies could do a better job of reducing mud and manure in housing and open lots, especially in the rainy season.

Lameness—Routine hoof-trimming was one operation that sometimes got cut in the recent economic downturn. A return to profitability has helped reinstate regular hoof care. While Lehenbauer hasn’t observed any California herds exceed the lameness benchmarks, he still sees some cows spending too much time on concrete or standing in mud or manure.

Calf care—Lehenbauer occasionally sees newborns and calves just a few weeks old that don’t meet the benchmarks for sanitation or colostrum management.

"FARM helps dairies identify opportunities to improve the health and well-being of their cattle," Lehenbauer says. "Produ-cers are encouraged to join us during an evaluation."


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