Animal Welfare in Dairy System Design

Modern dairy shelters provide the five freedoms of animal welfare that are essential to cow comfort and animal husbandry.
( Farm Journal )

Instead of looking for what we do wrong in the dairy industry maybe we should look at what we do right. The “Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare” are as follows:

  1. Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
  2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to express (most) normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

To me these are the basics of good animal husbandry. I can’t think of a dairy producer, nutritionist, veterinarian, ag builder, or anyone involved in the industry as a whole that does not want to provide these freedoms to their animals. The health and welfare of the animals is a known barometer of the health and welfare of the dairy business. Simply said, healthy cows are more productive.

As I look through the above list, all of the design standards for modern dairy shelters can be reflexed. Freedom from hunger and thirst means providing 3+ inches per cow of waterer space, feed space of 30 inches for prefresh cows, 20+ hours per day of access to feed and water, and minimizing total milking time per day to less than 3 hours.

Freedom from discomfort means good stall design, making neck rail modifications, making stalls longer in older barns, using more bedding, sand bedding, proper grooving/texturing of concrete, maximizing lying time, and minimizing standing time. It means providing proper ventilation for the season and heat abatement in the summer months.

Freedom from pain, injury, or disease is the design and use of treatment systems/pens, installation of rubber or resilient flooring, and development of vaccination and treatment protocols with the oversight of the veterinarian. It includes proper design and construction of alleyways, floors, and stalls.

Freedom to express normal behavior just means freestall design with adequate lunge room, feed bunks that present feed at 4 to 6 inches above the animal’s front feet, 4 to 6 inches of water in the water trough, and providing adequate floor space for animals to move throughout the shelter and around animals at the feed bunk or waterers.

Freedom from fear and distress may be the hardest to measure and really know if we are doing our best. I think as an industry we are moving in the right direction with management tools like pain medication at dehorning, stockmanship training for employees, and protocols for downed cows.

I don’t think we should live in fear of the animal welfare topics that seem to lurk on the horizon. Rather, I think we should be proud of the comfort and care we provide day in and day out to the animals of the US dairy industry.

To learn more about Animal Welfare in Dairy System Design take a look at Penn State Extension’s recent Technology Tuesday Webinar.

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