12 December 1997

Lack of straw in NI might hit cattle welfare

SLATTED housing for beef animals is coming under pressure as supermarkets favour straw yard accommodation in the belief that it is better for animal welfare.

But in Northern Ireland, where the acreage of cereals is small, inadequate bedding of straw yards could be worse for stock welfare and hygiene than slatted housing.

So warns Raymond Steen of the Agricultural Research Institute of Northern Ireland, Hillsborough. With 90% of the agricultural area in Northern Ireland in grass and only 10% growing cereals, there is only enough straw for 15% of the cattle.

A study has just begun to compare inferior slats with straw bedding, and to see if the comfort of slats can be improved without animals becoming dirty.

Beef animals will have a choice of lying areas that will include sawdust and straw bedded areas, slats, and slats slotted with mats to increase comfort. "They will be observed to see the percentage of time animals spend in each area. This will reflect what the animal considers good welfare, not what we consider is good," says Dr Steen.

Prior to some previous research at Hillsborough, pigs were considered to need straw to nest in, he explains. But when given a choice they preferred peat, followed by mushroom compost, then sawdust, sand and wood bark above straw. The sows need to root was more important than comfort. Our image of what she needed was not what the sow wanted, he explains.

To see whether animal comfort – and therefore welfare – could be improved on slats, comfortable compound mats similar to those used in cow cubicles were fitted on to the slats and slots cut to allow the muck to go through. But the risk is that these will make stock dirtier, because they reduce the area for muck removal. These had cost about £22/m sq (£2/ft sq). Other slats would have rubber strips fitted, adds Dr Steen. &#42