Holistic approach needed for dairy cow welfare

Ensuring dairy cow welfare is up to scratch goes far beyond making sure cows are housed in the correct environment and in comfortable conditions, according to Mike Madders, Staffordshire NFU county chairman.

Speaking at last week’s launch of the NFU-instigated Dairy Cow Welfare Strategy, hosted at his farm in Coppenhall, Staffordshire, he said: “Looking after dairy cows to make sure their welfare needs are met demands a holistic approach – and that’s how we all need to manage our herds in the future.

“By that I mean there are a host of different considerations that dairy farmers must take into account.”

At the launch of the document, produced in conjunction with The British Vet Association, DairyCo, Holstein UK, The RABDF and the Cattle Health and Welfare Group, he highlighted several areas he believed milk producers should be aware of to ensure they can meet the welfare needs of their cows. Each, he said, would not only be beneficial to productivity and profitability, but also enable farmers to be seen to be operating to standards of care that consumers are increasingly aware of.

“The infrastructure of dairy farms will always be at the cutting edge of cow welfare, but as we all do our budgets and negotiate our milk prices, we must remember that we need 2p from every litre of milk we produce to make sure the infrastructure of our dairy units can be maintained.

“That’s something that every aspect of the supply chain must be aware of if they want dairy farmers to produce milk to the high welfare standards that they, and the consumer, demands.”

Addressing future breeding policies for the UK dairy herd, he said the “type” of black and white cow that farmers were being encouraged to produce in the future must reflect the need for an animal that can thrive and remain healthy.

“Breeding companies must focus research on this issue and I’m pleased to see that DairyCo is now including welfare traits in its sire indexes. In this herd we’ve always used bulls with good legs and feet traits and yet we still get lame cows. These are the areas that the geneticists must address if our aim is to improve the welfare of our cows.”

And it wasn’t just cow management that farmers must consider. Staff management was a topic that demanded more attention from dairy farmers if herds were to be cared for to high welfare standards.

“It’s something we all need to be aware of. As herds get bigger we’ll become more dependent on reliable and well-trained staff. The best results will only be obtained from herds with the right infrastructure and good cows when there’s a workforce in place to deliver the correct standard of care and management.

“When the people doing the job aren’t motivated and aren’t properly trained we won’t get the results we need, so I welcome the commitment to staff training within the new cow welfare recommendations,” said Mr Madders.

And Mr Madders has himself undertaken a number of improvements to improve cow welfare in his herd of 230 pedigree Holsteins.

Extensive modernisation of the farm’s dairy accommodation is under way. A new cubicle shed, used for the first time last winter, had cow welfare as a priority and has proved a resounding success.

“The shed cost us £150,000 providing 104 cubicles – about £1500 per cow place,” he said. “It’s got two open sides and has four rows of cubicles and two scrape-passages. Cows have access to a mixed ration delivered on concrete along the side of the building so there’s no wasted space.

“The building covers the cows and the feed area along the side which is also beneath the roof – the cows love it. The temperature dropped to minus 16C last winter but milk production didn’t drop one iota.”

The building has two 16ft outer passages with the central passageway measuring 12ft. Cable-driven automatic scrapers operate every two hours. The 8ft-long cubicles provide ample lunging space – with a high neck rail – and have a “poly-pillow” fitted along the front of the entire length of the cubicles.

“It’s a toughened plastic ridge which positions the cows in the cubicles preventing them going too far forward and ensuring muck falls into the passageway. If we did consider housing cows all-year-round this type of building would do the job perfectly.”

Another building has been “gutted” and is being replaced with three rows totalling 84 cubicles; one row measures nine feet long with the other two rows measuring eight feet long. All three rows of cubicles are 3ft 9.5ins wide and will be fitted with mattresses and foam mats and bedded with sawdust.

We’ll also be improving the ventilation by removing part of one of the side walls and widening the space boarding. The ridge sheets will also be taken off to provide a six-inch opening along the entire length of the roof.”