Animal welfare. Animal rights. The ethics of producing milk. What do these terms mean?
Have definitions changed over the decades? What do consumers know? What should they know? What’s “happy, happy, happy, dead”? Dr. Jim Reynolds ([email protected]) is an animal welfare coach at FYP Consulting. He helps dairy producers create environments where calves and cows can thrive. I discussed animal welfare, rights, and ethics with Dr. Reynolds recently.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Part 2 of a 2-part article.
Part 1 can be found at https://www.dairybusiness.com/a-cows-life-happy-happy-happy-dead/
The phrase “happy, happy, happy, dead” sounds odd. Please explain!
Dr. Terry Whiting, a veterinarian with the Canadian Government, presented this at an American Veterinary Medical Association meeting on euthanasia. He pointed out the model we have for animals on farms is “Happy, happy, happy, dead”, meaning the animals are to have good lives, with a minimum of distress, pain, or illness and then die without realizing they have been used for our purposes and without understanding they go to slaughter or feeling pain or distress at slaughter or death. It is, in fact, the ideal model for our use of farm animals.
Dr. Whiting very effectively summarized all we need to know about animal husbandry and animal welfare. It is not more complicated than keeping the animals happy.
At one point in my career I lived in Los Angeles and worked with dairy farmers in Chino. Our neighbors in LA were interested in learning about dairying and asked good questions. They just wanted to know that baby calves and their moms were treated well.
You understood your neighbors well. The issue of dairy cow and calf separation and management has become very current in welfare discussions on dairies. It has been an issue for consumers for a long time. Animal advocacy groups report separation of the calf from the mother on dairies registers high levels of concern on surveys.
The issue of separation of calves from dams represents a good opportunity to review and understand animal welfare and how we should address our husbandry to provide for the needs of animals while still getting what we want from them. We separate dairy calves from dairy cows near birth because we think this practice reduces mastitis in the dam, improves calf health, and improves milk production. I don’t think research supports the idea it reduces mastitis and improves calf health. Those are mainly factors of sanitation, nutrition, and milking management. I do think it is necessary to separate the cow and the calf to achieve the milk production we want. And, it does facilitate management of calves and lactating cows. In short, we will separate the calf from the cow after birth. The questions are what effects do these have on the calf and the cow, how serious are they regarding the affective states of the animals, and can we ameliorate these issues through managing the animals at and after separation?
The calf is born with certain systems, or physiologies, that need to go quickly from not working to working. The calf’s immune system is quite functional at birth but does benefit from colostrum. The calf requires energy immediately after birth, having separated from the placenta, it’s source of nutrition as a fetus. This means the calf’s digestive system must be started; in utero, it had no digestive enzymes and it now must digest and absorb the nutrition in colostrum and milk. Also, the calf’s musculoskeletal system has not been functional in utero and needs to be stimulated. Calves are a precocious species, meaning they get up and move soon after birth. In nature, the cow moves the calf to a hiding spot in grass or bushes within a few hours of birth. All these things are part of the natural events associated with birth. Nature did not intend for birth to be just delivery of the fetus and then be over with.
"Several research papers show that the calf and the cow both develop a bond within a short time after birth and that this bond gets stronger the longer the calf and cow are together. So, separating them early makes sense in reducing anxiety and distress."
Research is lacking regarding specific affective state issues after birth. We can address the needs of the calf and cow as currently understood by doing several things after birth. Research does show that newborn calves show anxiety from hunger if not fed quickly. The cow shows protective behavior for the calf after birth and demonstrates anxiety if the calf is disturbed, calls out, or is handled in a rough manner.
There are some small alterations we can do in how we manage the newborn calf and dam that are likely to have a positive effect on both. Letting the cow lick the calf after birth stimulates the musculoskeletal system of the calf, dries it off and probably gives the cow some endorphins that help her feel better after delivery. Allowing the calf to suckle colostrum from a nipple bottle may help stimulate the GI system and may provide an oxytocin response leading to endorphins for the calf. Separating the calf from the cow in a calm, respectful manner may help alleviate some of the anxiety the cow may feel when the calf is taken away. Giving the calf a warm, clean, dry, and safe place to lie on after separation may replace the hiding place the cow would move the calf to and will reduce anxiety. Nursing has a comforting effect on neonates, so providing multiple small feedings from a nipple bottle can decrease hunger and separation anxiety in calves. Providing good, palatable hay to the dam may reduce her anxiety by giving her something to chew.
How has the dairy industry’s approach to animal welfare changed over your career?
Many of the practices we used in the past and currently use in animal husbandry are simply things we did because someone else did them. We have not really looked at providing husbandry to livestock that provided the best lives for animals. We created housing and practices that appeared practical to getting tasks done, without considering the animal’s affective states.
There have been some very good improvements for animal welfare on dairies over the past 15 years.
Most dairies have greatly improved animal handling, reducing anxiety and injuries in cows and calves. Nearly all dairies now let cows move to the milking parlor and back to their housing at their own speed. Pushing cows too fast into the parlor and through the parlor was probably the biggest cause of injuries and down cows on dairies.
Nutrition has improved significantly in the consistency of mixing and delivery of feed. Many dairies have improved the comfort of cow housing and heat and cold abatement. Most dairies have significantly improved sire selection for calving ease, reducing calving injuries and post-partum diseases. Many dairies have stopped using electric prods. Most, but not all dairies, have stopped tail docking. Some dairies are using pain management when disbudding calves.
The biggest changes have been with animal handling. Cow and calf comfort have been addressed on many dairies but still needs improvement. Lameness, a disease associated with overcrowding, time standing on concrete; stall or lying area comfort; heat stress, and nutrition continues to be a problem for the industry. Pain management for things we do to animals that we know will hurt need to become universally implemented.
You’ve consulted on animal welfare in Europe. How do practices there compare to ours in the US?
"The biggest changes have been with animal handling. Cow and calf comfort have been addressed on many dairies but still needs improvement. Lameness, a disease associated with overcrowding, time standing on concrete; stall or lying area comfort; heat stress, and nutrition continues to be a problem for the industry. Pain management for things we do to animals that we know will hurt need to become universally implemented. "
Farms in the EU are regulated regarding animal welfare. Each country has laws that conform to EU standards that do improve the lives of animals in many important ways. Consumers, through retailers of dairy products, have considerable influence on welfare practices on farms. There are several farm animal welfare programs in the EU that oversee conformance to animal welfare policies. Pain management is one area that must be addressed on farms in the EU. Stocking density is more controlled. In general, farms comply with increased farm animal welfare standards in the EU because the ethical concerns are more widely held and there is more oversight. There are still variations in the lives animals have on farms in the EU, particularly in dairy cattle housing comfort.
An interesting difference between the EU and the US regarding farm animal welfare is the response to serious animal welfare problems. In the EU, welfare problems are often met with desire to correct the problems, whereas in the US, there is a tendency to discredit the people seeking to address the problems.
What do you see on the horizon for US producers? And consumers?
One area I see changing is with calf housing. Research shows that calves need to be housed with other calves. This can be paired housing or group housing and probably should begin at least by day 5 to 7 after birth. Calves in paired housing showed improved cognitive development, played more, and were calmer after weaning. This is an example of where the industry should go to really provide animals good lives. Other areas are using polled genes to reduce the need for disbudding and the use of pain management for all painful procedures.
Consumers will be expected to influence animal welfare on farms more in the coming years both by pressuring retailers to provide products that meet their ethical expectations and by enacting laws when egregious issues of animal welfare are not corrected. Animal advocacy groups understand the welfare issues on farms very well and can be expected to continue informing and motivating consumers for change.
Another, very large issue on the horizon will be alternatives to traditional farm products. Plant-based milk, meat, and cell-cultured meat products should be expected to compete with cows’ milk and farm raised meat and our industries need to be prepared to maintain market share. These products will appeal to consumers who are uncomfortable with the ethics of current farm animal production. Farm industries can either complain about alternative products or compete by providing products consumers want.
Successful dairies should work to maintain a market for their milk. They should manage calves and cows in ways employees and consumers are comfortable with. The retailers of dairy products will increasingly want milk from these dairies.
What should a dairy producer be thinking about when they address animal welfare and the ethics of producing milk?
Animal welfare is very simple - understand what the animal wants and provide that. We have tended to make it difficult because many people have resisted changing.
We know what the calves and cows want to have good lives. The ethical issues relate to providing those things in practical ways. Dairy producers should approach animal welfare the way they approach all problems on the farm - how do we improve management to make the farm better? It does not have to happen overnight. Each time we look at a system on a dairy, we should think of how we can make it better for the animals and the people. If we can honestly say the system is fine, leave it alone. If there are ways to improve it, plan for the change.
There are two main parts of dairying - making milk and selling it. Making products that match consumer’s expectations makes good sense for both animal welfare and economics.
Where can they go for more information?
The Dairy Cattle Welfare Council is a very good resource. https://dcwcouncil.org/