Thousands of dairy cows produce their white gold on a daily basis. This is no mean feat, but one that only healthy, stable cows can perform in the long term. This is why, particularly in the case of dairy cows, better animal welfare equals better health, which in turn equals better performance. Here are the most important animal welfare parameters for dairy cows.
Udder health. Udder disease can result in massive economic loss and insurmountable costs. In order to prevent disease, farmers must be able to detect any deterioration in their herd’s health quickly. In most cases, we are only aware of the direct costs of veterinary treatment and medication. Additional costs arise from unusable milk and are incurred as a result of treatment, management, separate milking, increased restocking and problems in subsequent lactation. A major indicator for assessing udder health is the somatic cell content of the milk. Many risk factors, including poor barn hygiene, increase the somatic cell count. However, feed additives can help reduce the somatic cell content.
Cow comfort. Just as in the case of athletes, it is important that dairy cows avoid joint injuries, such as those of the hock and the knee, and broken ribs. More comfort, for example through outdoor lying areas in the exercise pen, ensures that the animals can lie down and rise with greater ease and without hindrance, and assume their natural lying position without incurring injury. In addition, animals should be provided with easily accessible resting, feeding, drinking and exercise areas. This also prevents soiling and skin injuries.
Lameness. This is often caused by a variety of hoof injuries or diseases, and has a significant impact on the animals’ natural behaviour and welfare. In any case, it is very painful and frequently one of the main causes of premature death. Detecting it early on and taking appropriate preventive measures increase the chances of recovery.
Social behaviour. Cows are herd animals that have an established hierarchy. They have a need for physical and social contact, which they normally express through mutual grooming. Additionally, they need a well-planned barn with exercise and resting areas, enough space and tranquillity to express their social behaviour.
Metabolism. The many breeding successes over the last few decades have resulted in significant increases in performance, but also in major challenges. A case in point is an increase in the risk of metabolic diseases such as ketosis and ruminal acidosis due to the different needs. In addition to feed management, this is precisely where the right feed additives can make a great difference.
Healthy calves are the basis for the best possible milk yield: they secure the livestock’s future and consequently that of the farm. Good management and animal-friendly farming practices ensure that these calves grow into dairy cows that perform well and have a long lifespan. Protecting calves as much as possible against avoidable diseases and inflammations is particularly important. Inappropriate feeding and farming practices may reduce their resistance and increase the risk of disease. Their first few hours of life are decisive: since calves are born with an underdeveloped immune system, they need a sufficient quantity of valuable colostrum, which boosts their immune system, providing them with the antibodies they need to survive in their specific barn environment.
Calves are also exposed to numerous external factors, including stressors such as poor farming conditions, environmental influences and high microbial load. These could produce symptoms such as diarrhoea, infections and respiratory diseases, which often occur together and are due to the weak immune system of the young calf. All these factors stress the calf immensely and permanently hinder both its well-being and performance. Disease often results in developmental disorders and impairments, and requires extra work and additional costs. Therefore, prevention is better than cure: this involves providing calves with the best possible care and containing possible stressors so that the future dairy cows can reach their full genetic potential.
Feeding can also actively contribute to this, effectively improving animal welfare from the inside out. Plant feed additives can reduce inflammatory reactions in calves, meaning that the energy acquired from the feed is not wasted on inflammatory reactions but made completely available for growth. This simultaneously increases the calves’ resistance and well-being. A recent feeding test showed how a Dr. Eckel feed additive containing flavonoids demonstrably promotes calves’ well-being. You can learn more about this test here.
No less than the future of the industry featured in this year’s trade conference. Sustainable, profitable and animal-welfare oriented: these are the guiding principles for tomorrow’s food production. But which is the path that will lead to success? What are the challenges that need to be overcome? And how can growers, producers, processors and retailers be economically viable while fulfilling all the requirements for animal welfare, the climate, the environment and resources? Speakers and participants addressed these major issues in talks and panel discussions.
Prof. Johanna Fink-Gremmels, Chair of Veterinary Pharmacology and Toxicology at Utrecht University, made the role of nutrition in animal health and welfare particularly clear in her talk, stating that, besides contributing significantly to stable health, proper nutrition is also a key factor for better performance, lower medical costs and consequently better returns. Dutch company New Generation Nutrition is also all about nutrition. In her talk, CEO Marian Peters clearly demonstrated how important insects could be to nutrition, both animal and human, in the future.
Dr Gereon Schulze Althoff, Head of Quality Management and Veterinary Services at Tönnies, provided exciting insights into the role of producers, in particular the responsibility and potential of the various stakeholders in the value chain. A visionary presentation by Dr Francesca Blasco, Vice President Product & Innovation, outlined how to achieve profitable and animal-friendly production. The conference culminated in a panel discussion, including the speakers and audience, on how the industry can find a balance between animal welfare and profitability.
“It was a great mix of high-calibre expert talks, inspiring debates and plenty of opportunity for discussions with international industry peers,” said Bernhard große Austing from Austing Mischfutterwerk GmbH & Co. KG, adding: “Animal welfare is no trivial matter. Rather, as amply demonstrated at this conference, it is a necessity. Only healthy animals can provide healthy food. Because ultimately, this is what the consumer wants and what our world needs in order to ensure sufficient food supplies in the future.”
Europe’s compound feed industry recently met in Lyon. The agenda of this high-level meeting included two major issues: How can we reduce antibiotics in animal feed? And how can we sustainably improve the welfare of animals that are bred and kept for human consumption? The fact that these issues were so prominent at the General Assembly of the FEFAC, one of the most important meetings of the feed industry, sends a very clear signal: not only must we talk about these issues, we must also take action. Not just because new legal provisions restrict the prophylactic use of antibiotics even further. And not just because consumers in Europe, as in the rest of the world, increasingly want to be informed about livestock breeding conditions and husbandry. But because it is our responsibility as people, companies and an industry as a whole to deal with these issues.
Although the use of antibiotics in the EU has been visibly decreasing since 2010, as also established in Lyon, much more yet would be possible with the products available today. Animal feed quality is key. Feed additives, whose targeted use both ensures the optimal supply of nutrients and promotes animal health, are another important tool and a major component of optimised health management, even without prophylactic antibiotics.
The choice of natural, reliable and convenient alternatives is remarkably vast:
Treating sick animals with antibiotics is still an extremely important component, which we will not be able to forgo in the foreseeable future. This is precisely why it is all the more important to eliminate antibiotics when effective and sometimes better alternatives exist. We should and must do whatever can be done to reduce the risk of resistance to antibiotics. Now. A holistic approach that takes full advantage of breeding opportunities, the development of innovative vaccines, healthy animal nutrition and good farm management has the greatest potential to further reduce the use of antibiotics.