Fit and feeling good: promoting good welfare on British dairy farms

Dairy producers gathered for a RABDF farm walk near Reading to find out about the role of welfare in a successful dairy farming business. Gemma Mackenzie reports

Health and welfare go hand in hand

Good welfare plays an important role in the success of a dairy enterprise – that was the message delivered to dairy producers at a RABDF farm walk hosted by Derrick Davies, Home Farm, Sulhamstead, Reading.

And good cow health and welfare are synonymous with each other, with good welfare being defined as a cow that is “fit and feeling good”, said leading vet Nick Bell from the Royal Veterinary College.

“The health status of the British dairy herd is something we need to keep under constant review. And if we can measure welfare performance through welfare outcomes, it perhaps does not matter how we arrive at it so long as these measures are robust,” he added.

He said getting welfare right was a “win win for everyone” because cows kept on a high welfare system would produce lots of milk, and on some farms in the past, welfare has actually been a ceiling on production.

This is certainly the case on Home Farm, where high welfare is essential to the business’ success.

Mr Davies said: “We have seen a big improvement by having high standards of welfare. It has an effect on everything; the animals are a lot healthier and the staff work better and are generally happier in what they do.”

Healthy feet mean happy cows

And it is mobility scoring, through DairyCo’s Healthy Feet Programme, on the 300 Holstein Friesian cow unit at Home Farm which has really paid off, resulting in increased milk yields, better cow health, increased feed intakes and happier staff.

“Locomotion scoring has certainly opened my eyes; lameness has an effect on everything, but if you sort out the cows feet they will produce more milk for you,” said Mr Davies.

In fact, this welfare outcome is an iceberg indicator on dairy units, and very often welfare problems are highlighted in mobility scoring, said Dr Bell.

“It really does reflect on a whole range of things that might be going on on farm. And if you are maintaining a really good mobility score, it’s probably a sign that you are getting all these things right on farm.”

To measure cow mobility, Dr Bell recommended carrying out an examination of each cow as it enters the milking parlour. Thereafter, producers must also look at the cows’ behaviour in the shed as well as cow flow and whether or not the animals are evenly dispersed.

A healthy rumen is essential

Good welfare and milk production are reliant on the cows having a healthy rumen, said consultant Peter Kelly from Kelly Farm Consulting.

“The healthy rumen and the happy cow also go hand in hand, so feed intake and the quality of the feed you are putting into the cows is important.”

And quality of feed is what drives feed intake, alongside mobility, because the cow has got to be mobile enough to get to the feed when she wants it, he added.

He recommended the following steps to achieving a healthy rumen:

• Cows should be feeding every couple of hours

• Cows must be able to reach their feed, so regularly push the feed up to them

• Ensure adequate feeding space – rub-marks on a cow’s neck indicates inadequate feeding space

• Milk cows in batches to ensure they are milked and back to feeding within one hour

• Avoid grouping cows into batches of high, medium and low yielders – keep moving cows between groups to an absolute minimum

“If you can leave the cows on one diet all the way through lactation, you can achieve much better yields; these cows have their social groups and if you are making them mix, that can have a big impact on performance,” he added.

At Home Farm there are only two groups of milking cows: the main herd and a group of low yielders getting ready for drying off. The calving index currently lies at between 402 and 406 days.

Mr Davies said: “If the cows are producing a lot of milk, I’m not going to chase them to dry them off; there is a healthy milk price at the moment and it’s the later part of the lactation where they make their money.”

RABDF Youngstock Farm Walks

Following on from the success of Farmers Weekly’s Youngstock: Stop the Loss campaign, the National Youngstock Association has teamed up with the RABDF to host a series of farm walks on beef and dairy youngstock rearing. The next walks will take place on 3 May in Derbyshire and 16 May in Lockerbie. For more information and to register, visit the RABDF website at

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