“We hope our findings may encourage a more sustainable and responsible food consumption,” explains postdoc Roi Mandel Briefer at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).
Contrary to what one might think, dairy cows and other dairy cattle are likely to experience worse welfare than their counterparts in beef herds, raised solely for meat.
The results stem from a new international study headed by UCPH, where Roi Mandel Briefer from the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences collaborated with colleagues from Wageningen Livestock Research, Royal Veterinary College in London, University of Bristol and Humboldt-Universität in Berlin.
The researchers asked 70 leading bovine welfare experts from around the world to assess the welfare risks of the most common production systems in their country.
“The welfare is worse with cattle in the most common dairy production systems in opposition to cattle in the most common beef production systems. These findings contradicts a very long and widely held belief in our society,” says Roi Mandel Briefer.
It is the first time that these predictions are being tested, validated and published.
Experts’ ratings addressed all main aspects of welfare related to the animals’ basic health and functioning, feelings and their ability to engage in natural behaviours.
“The higher welfare risk in the dairy sector is not limited to dairy cows – defined from first calving onwards –, but also, to their calves. Experts rated the welfare risk of calves originating from dairy herds to be higher than that of calves originating from beef herds, regardless of the production goal, be it for red-meat, veal, or to replace the dam,” says Roi Mandel Briefer.
The researchers expect that the welfare assessment is the same in organic production. The reason being that dairy in organic production are also used for more than milk, which is the key reason for the worse welfare.
Raising dairy animals in better conditions may certainly improve their welfare in some contexts, says Roi Mandel Briefer.
“However, if such measures are similarly applied to bovines in the beef herds, then they may retain their perceived higher welfare status,” he says.
How the study was conducted
The experts were invited to participate in the survey based on their number of publications on the topic of bovine welfare and/or their publication impact (H-index, which is a rough numerical indicator of how productive and influential a researcher is based on their citations by other scientists).
They were then asked to rate the likelihood of 12 statements inspired by the Welfare Quality protocol, which is a well established protocol for assessing bovine welfare on farms. The statements addressed the following core areas of potential welfare concern: (1) inadequate diet, (2) inadequate water supply, (3) thermal discomfort, (4) resting discomfort, (5) injuries, (6) disease, (7) pain resulting from management/handling/surgical procedures, (8) inability to move freely, (9) inability to perform social behavior, (10) inability to perform other normal behaviors, (11) experiencing negative affective states, (12) lack of experiencing positive affective states.
The 70 experts, who had a median experience of at least 15 years, were recruited from Europe (35), North America (17), South America (8), Australia (5) and other regions of the world (5).
The patterns show the similar picture with all experts despite national differences. Experts from the different geographical regions only differed in their assessment of veal production.
Dairy cattle exposed to more changes
Reflecting on why the results pointed to reduced welfare for animals in dairy systems, Roi Mandel Briefer explains that dairy production involves a higher degree of intervention, since the dairy cattle are used to provide milk for human consumption, whereas the beef cows produce milk for their own calves.
The milk from dairy cows, produced in considerably higher volumes than in beef cows, is collected 1-3 times per day, often for 305 days or more per lactation. That has implications for how these animals and their calves are raised and managed. Early separation of calves from their dams, a common practice in dairy herds, is one example.
The study also notes that long-term genetic selection for high milk yield in dairy cows is recognised as a major factor causing poor welfare. In particular, it results in health problems such as lameness, mastitis, reproductive disorders and metabolic disorders.
“Refining or simply eliminating, when possible, husbandry practices that have long been recognized as compromising the welfare of both cows and their calves, such as early separation of the calves from their dams, may help to minimise the welfare gap between the beef and the dairy sector,” says Roi Mandel Briefer.
“A complementary approach that applies to both sectors, dairy or beef, would be to elevate overall welfare e.g. by better training of animal handlers. Unfortunately, in many regions of the world, training of animal handlers is not mandatory. In other countries periodic training updates could be required.”
The researchers behind the study emphasize that the results do not necessarily mean that animals born in dairy herds are, at any given point of time and in every type of system, worse off than animals born in beef herds.
“However, when it comes to making food or policy decisions based on general expert welfare assessment, our findings may suggest a revision of the current image of the dairy sector compared to the beef sector,” says Roi Mandel Briefer.
“Raising awareness about the fact that dairy production also produces meat, and the toll of milk production on the welfare state of animals in the dairy industry, would hopefully encourage a more sustainable and responsible food consumption. Labeling the origin of the meat (beef/dairy herd) on food packaging, could be a first step in this process.”