21 November 1997

INDEPENDENCE ONLY CREDIBLE WAY AHEAD

Independent monitoring of

quality asurance and

welfare standards on dairy

farms is the only credible

way forward argues

Cheshire vet John Dawson

MOST dairy companies have a welfare code of practice for the cow issued to their customers. These codes are self-assessment schemes only requiring the farmer to tick boxes saying they adhered to the standards required. They contain requirements which are either too vague or sometimes impractical, having total disregard to the cows habitat and environment. This type of welfare assurance doesnt have long-term credibility with the consumer.

An independent assurance monitoring scheme with good common sense standards which are assessed and applied by an independent team is the only way to gain credibility.

Cheshire Monitoring Service is an independent training organisation to train assessors and was set up by a dairy farmer (see panel). With their first training course behind them, the first assessors of CMSs farm assurance team are out visiting farms of a major dairy company to assess their welfare standards.

Welfare requirements

CMS, with the help of vets, has devised a set of commonsense welfare requirements centred around the welfare code of five freedoms:

lFreedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition.

&#8226 Freedom from discomfort.

lFreedom from pain, injury, or disease.

&#8226 Freedom from fear or distress.

&#8226 Freedom to express most normal patterns of behaviour.

The assurance assessment is based around the five freedoms, but includes record-keeping such as a movement and medicine books.

Although a record doesnt directly relate to the welfare of a cow, it is vital information needed for a farm assessor to help during their short, infrequent visits as they can relate the recorded information to their findings.

For example, if a cow is found to have a chronic illness, then recorded evidence of its treatment will indicate that no undue suffering has been endured by the animal and proper veterinary care has been administered. Records can be assessed for the incidence of lameness, mastitis or other diseases. If the incidence is too high then poor welfare may be a contributing factor. Mastitis in particular is one area where record-keeping will have to improve on most farms.

These freedoms appear to satisfy the welfare needs of the cow in a concise and easy-to-evaluate manner. However, no system is perfect and conflicts often arise, take for example the issue of bedding on a cubicle floor. A deep straw bed would satisfy Freedom 2, but it could harbour mastitis-causing bacteria, so to satisfy Freedom 3, the cow would be better on the bare concrete! Although an extreme example, it illustrates that some trade offs have to be made.

The first port of call for the welfare assessor is the herd of cows.

A close examination of the herd can usually give a very good indication of the level of welfare on the farm. They expect to find happy contented cows, cudding, which are lying down or walking around displaying normal patterns of behaviour.

Cows should be in good body condition, with clean healthy coats and little or no faecal staining, especially on the lower limbs. They should have absence of lesions, swellings or any other physical blemishes which would indicate poor housing design, narrow walkways or poor herding techniques. Low levels of lameness and other diseases should be present. When the cows are in good condition, there is a good possibility the facilities and management will be adequate.

Assessors will carry out a detailed examination of the farm, assessing all aspects which influence the cows welfare, including housing, management, nutrition and health.

Although many different forms of housing, feeding and management systems are in use, general principles can be applied to them all.

Housing must provide adequate room, be dry, with plenty of ventilation. It must provide good, dry, comfortable lying area and passages should be scraped often to prevent build up of slurry.

Cows need plenty of space. Cubicles should, therefore, be large enough to accommodate the cow. The ideal size is 2.4m (8ft) long and 1m (3ft 9in) wide with a fall from front to back of 12.7m (5in). However, the perfect cubicle is a rare thing and the only way to assess the comfort of the cubicles is with the cow in them. In many cases the flooring and bedding used in the cubicle and its design can make it comfortable and welfare acceptable. &#42

Housing must provide adequate room, and offer a comfortable lying area.

Overgrown feet predispose to lameness and are a welfare hazard.

FARMER ASSESSES THE ASSESSORS

Peter Darlington is a dairy farmer who saw the changes coming, and set up Cheshire Monitoring Services to meet the expected demand for specialist training for assessors.

He was concerned that dairy farmers would have rules and regulations imposed upon them by people who were not sympathetic to the dairy industry. He recognised a need for somebody from the industry to agree with supermarkets and buyers what was practical and feasible, and who could then interpret those reasonable demands to farmers.

Mr Darlington has been providing training for dairy company supply assessors in the run up to the launch of their own quality assurance schemes. His courses concentrate on the Farm Animal Welfare Councils "Five Freedoms", and he structures the programme around them.

He places particular stress on understanding the day-to-day pressures faced by farmers. "With the expectation of greater public awareness we must be seen to be implementing these schemes without antagonising milk producers," he says. "This is a difficult balance which can only be approached by auditors sympathetic with the day-to-day running of the farm."

Generally, he says, farmers and stockmen dont need policing, only helping.

He acknowledges that there is a long way to go to arrive at universal standards. "All the company welfare codes at present are slightly different, although they are all based around the same principles," he says.

"It needs someone to take the NFU code of practice by the horns and decide whether individual schemes should be tailored to match the NFU code, or whether company schemes should be run alongside."