What Does Dairy Cattle Well-Being Really Mean?

Posted on: April 06, 2017

Understanding the emotional state of the dairy cow

Well-being. It means different things to different people but one thing that can be agreed on is that it is important to maintain at the highest standard, particularly with dairy cattle. So what are the important factors, how do we reliably assess dairy cattle well-being and where are the common challenges?

It is widely accepted that the definition of well-being includes three elements:

  • The biological functioning of an animal
  • Its emotional state
  • Its ability to show normal patterns of behaviour

There are a wealth of methods to measure the physical health, adequacy of nutrition, physical and thermal comfort of a cow, but how can you objectively measure the emotional state of a cow? What is ‘normal’ behaviour for a dairy cow that is the result of generations of genetic manipulation from its undomesticated ancestors?

The Five Freedoms were developed to try and provide a framework for well-being assessment and are recognised as being hugely influential in animal well-being science. Many argue that they have shortcomings however, such as not recognising the importance of positive experiences to minimise the effect of negative ones.

Measurable gross herd parameters, such as mortality rates, disease and injury incidence and prevalence, reproductive success and growth rates can be combined with physiological markers including plasma glucocorticoid concentration and faecal cortisol levels to provide a comprehensive picture of how well animals are coping. With the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis playing such a critical role in stress adaptation mechanisms, measurement of its activity is now one of the most common methods to assess stress. One system developed to produce comparable and objective assessment of well-being are the Welfare Quality® protocols, which use a set of 12 criteria to measure housing, feeding, health and behaviour.

Knowing the common challenges is an important step to improve and maintain good well-being. In dairy cattle, they include:

Lack of comfort

Adequate lying time is hugely important for dairy cows and can be used as a reliable measure of comfort. Disease, as well as poor housing provision are the main contributors to problems here. Heat stress is another important factor to consider when cows are housed.

Painful conditions

Pain is one of the most important negative experiences/emotions in relation to well-being and has significant impacts on productivity too. Lameness alone can cause yield losses of 360kg per 305 days of lactation.

Issues relating to social behaviour

From aggressive interactions and competition for resources to calf separation and isolation, social stresses can cause serious health problems, such as reduced feed intake leading to metabolic disease, increased incidence of metritis and poor weight gain in calves.

Poor human-animal relationship

With inevitable frequent contact with stockmen, an animal’s response to workers is hugely important in establishing a positive emotional state. Problems can be established via measurement tools such as the ‘flight distance’ test. Well-being, however defined and however measured is known to affect yield and other important productivity points if not well maintained. For this reason, it is important to find a system of assessment that is easily and regularly implementable and any points of concern acted on quickly.

This blog is based on Dr Xavier Manteca’s presentation on the ‘Well-being of Dairy Cattle’ at the Bayer Dairy Cattle Summit 2017.

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April 06, 2017