'Few disadvantages' to large herds, say Government welfare advisors

THE Government’s farm animal welfare advisers have concluded that there are ‘few disadvantages’ to cows being housed in large herds.

In newly published advice to UK Ministers, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) says cows kept in large, permanently housed herds can enjoy a ‘satisfactory standard of welfare’, defined as, ‘at the very least, a life worth living’.

However, it says this is entirely dependent on the quality of stockmanship and certain provisions being met to alleviate the ‘great stress’ these cows are under.

FAWC chairman Professor Christopher Wathes says there are ‘both advantages and disadvantages’ from permanent housing in terms of animal welfare.

Advantages include greater ability to control feed composition and target diets according to need, reduced risk of parasitic infection and summer mastitis, protection from adverse weather and reduced exposure to diseases transmitted by air and wildlife.

But he also identifies a number of disadvantages that he says pose a risk to the fourth of FAWC’s ‘five freedoms’ – the ability of animals to express ‘normal behaviour’.

These include the inability of cows to carry out natural foraging behaviour, the reduced space they have to move in and ‘less environmental choice’. The absence of pasture as a ‘soft, non-slip surface’, and increased risk of physical injury, lameness and some types of environmental mastitis are also labelled as disadvantages.

Prof Wathes calls for further research on how all-year housing affects the ability of dairy cows to express normal behaviour and the extent to which their welfare is affected.

He tells Ministers: “If a dairy cow is to be housed all year round with little or no access to grazing, it is particularly important that housing and general facilities are appropriate such that the cow remains healthy and has the opportunity for good welfare whilst providing the desired milk yield.

“In addition to the provision of resources, good management, highly skilled veterinary care, and adequate numbers of stockmen, stockmanship of the highest standard is essential.

“Provided that these conditions are met and pending the new evidence about the Fourth Freedom, FAWC’s advice is that a cow housed all the year round with little or no access to grazing can have a satisfactory standard of welfare.”

Moving on to herd size, he concludes that there are ‘few disadvantages’ to herds of over 1,000 cows and again states that these animals can have a ‘satisfactory standard of welfare’. This is conditional, however, on the herd being divided into appropriate groups, with each managed according to nutritional and other needs, and stockmanship being ‘of the highest standard’.

“Paradoxically, very large herds have the potential to benefit the individual’s welfare,” he says.

For example, large herds enable a team of ‘experts’, including nutritionists and vets, to be employed on health management and disease prevention, while they are nearly always established on new sites, with modern buildings and equipment and good biosecurity.

However, Prof Wathes ends with a warning about consumer perceptions of large units. “It is our view that their objections to highly intensive farming practices will continue unless significant steps are taken to ensure that consumers become adequately and appropriately ‘informed’ about animal welfare issues,” he says.

Who are the Farm Animal Welfare Council?


  • Professor Christopher Wathes,holds the Chair of Animal Welfare at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London. He is a research scientist with interests in the environmental biology and management of farm and other animals.


  • Professor Michael Appleby, chief scientific adviser for the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). Member of the Scientific Committee of Humane Farm Animal Care and the Animal Compassionate Committee of Whole Foods Market in the USA. Formerly senior lecturer in Applied Animal Behaviour, University of Edinburgh.
  • Professor Richard Bennett, an agricultural economist in the Department of Agricultural and Food Economics at the University of Reading. He is a Trustee of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, the Humane Slaughter Association and the Farm Animal Welfare Trust.  Until September 2009, he was a member of the England Implementation Group for the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy.
  • Professor Henry Buller, Chair of Rural Geography and Director of the BA Human Geography programme at the University of Exeter. Editor of the international rural science journal Sociologia Ruralis.
  • Dr Joanne Conington, Senior Animal Breeding Specialist in the Sustainable Livestock Systems group at the Scottish Agricultural College. Her research interests are in the development of broader breeding goals in sustainable breeding programmes for livestock systems. Past sheep specialist with the Meat and Livestock Commission.
  • Huw Davies JP, FRAgS, a sheep farmer from Carmarthenshire. He is a member of the Steering Committee for the Implementation of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy for Wales and the Welsh Regional Board of the Moredun Research Institute, and a Fellow of the Royal Agricultural Societies.
  • Professor Sandra Edwards, Chair of Agriculture at the University of Newcastle. Previously director of the Scottish Pig Industry Initiative, past President of the British Society of Animal Science and member of the European Food Safety Authority working groups on pig welfare.
  • Professor Laura Green – Chair in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Warwick leading a research group on farm animal veterinary epidemiology.  Member of the Society for Veterinary Epidemiology and Preventative Medicine, Chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Research Committee A and Member of the Rural Economy and Land Use Strategic Advisory Committee.
  • George Hogarth, production director for an international chicken breeding company based in Scotland. A science graduate with research experience in poultry welfare and international experience in commercial poultry production.
  • Gwyn Jones, a dairy farmer from West Sussex. Currently Vice President of the NFU and a member of the Committee of Professional Agricultural Organisations (animal health).
  • Dr David Main,BVA Animal Welfare Foundation Lecturer in Animal Welfare at the University of Bristol and an RCVS recognised specialist in Animal Welfare, Science, Ethics and Law.
  • Professor Richard Moody – A consultant specialising in food and consumer issues, after 30 yrs experience as a senior academic and food scientist. Previously an independent Commissioner with the Meat and Livestock Commission and Chairman of its Consumers’ Committee, he is also an adviser on food additives research to the Food Standards Agency; was a member of its inaugural research committee, and is a Fellow of the Institute for Food Science and Technology.
  • Professor David Morton, Emeritus Professor of Biomedical Science and Ethics, and a laboratory animal veterinarian. Member of the European Food Safety Authority’s Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare, and the Companion Animal Welfare Council.
  • Andrew Nicholson, senior technical manager and animal welfare specialist for the Co-operative Group. He is a member of the joint pig industry technical advisory committee and the EU Technology Platform on Global Animal Health.
  • Reverend Professor Michael Reiss, assistant director and Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, University of London.  His research and consultancy interests are in science education, bioethics and sex education.
  • Dr Philip Scott - Reader of Farm Animal Studies at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and lead veterinarian in the School’s Farm Animal Teaching Hospital.  RCVS and European specialist in sheep health and production and European specialist in bovine health management.
  • Meryl Ward, director of a commercial pig breeding and finishing business and a member of the British Pig Executive.  She is a Council Member and Selector for the Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust and a Governor of Harper Adams University College.
  • Mike Wijnberg – Leading veterinarian for a large pig production and processing company.  Member of the Pig Veterinary Society, the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and RSPCA’s Freedom Food Technical Advisory Committee on pigs.

Readers' comments (7)

  • Government animal welfare advisors are paid to support 'big agriculture'. Where are the dissenting voices in Government? These pro-large dairy advisors even admit to the fact that cows are under great stress in large dairy herd envirionments such as that proposed by Nocton. Advisors from poultry and pig industry backgrounds do nothong to inspire confidence in this report either.

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  • Agree with the previous commentator. Where is the voice of welfare on this committee which is overloaded with industry 'status quo' people? Welfare credentials of a committee which believes that debeaking (sorry, beak trimming) in hens is welfare friendly, are not trustworthy.

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  • The FAWC have produced an interesting report, but I don't think this particularly endorses a move to large dairy herds. Are we really saying a 'satisfactory standard' of care is sufficient, particularly considering the 'great stress' an intensive dairy imposes on the animal? As Professor Wathes highlights, the dairy cow is unable to adopt its normal foraging behaviour, it has reduced space for natural movement, it is housed on concrete, the good milker will rarely if ever be put out to pasture... so to counter these difficulties, '... stockmanship of the highest standard is essential'. Yet bizarrely, the end result only provides a satisfactory standard? Prof Wathes talks about 'experts' being employed... but if they are so expert, why set such a low hurdle of 'satisfactory'? Is it not reasonable to expect 'Excellent' care... or even just plain 'Good' care for the dairy cow (and our main milking asset)? Perhaps if all we can achieve is 'satisfactory', we may have to concede that big may not be beautiful or acceptable after all?

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  • Just to pick up on the point of "stockmanship of the highest standard" - I have been present at 2 metings where Mr Howard (Nocton Dairies), when asked what he knew about dairy farming, replied "absolutely nothing". Mr Willes, when asked about how he was going to use local labour to man his 'farm' replied "they don't need to have experience of working with cows, in fact it is better if they don't as they have pre-conceived ideas".
    Not sure quite how that fits with "stockmanship of the highest standard"

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  • Considering Mr Willes past record, and Mr Howard complete lack of knowledge on the subject, i doubt very much we would be achieving the highest standard in Nocton.
    Moreover, we must not forget the negative environmental impact this animal factory would have.

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  • Do these people live on planet earth? Well they sure as hell don't live within a mile of this proposed dump of cow ****!!!!!

    Another great article from this paper which appears to twist everything around in favour of Willes and co - making everything into a positive. What happened to good old fashioned investigative journalism? Is that a thinkg of the past? Will no journalist out there really dig deep into who is really backing this proposed dairy farm, who is set to gain financially from it, whether that are any links between the big supermarkets and the main players in Nocton Diaries, the true feeling and worries of the people living near the proposed site and the breathtaking arrogance of those involved.

    What happened to all those 'David's' who used to beat the 'Goliaths'? I despair of the country we now live in. Civiilsed? Any country that allows this to go ahead against the will of the majority of the local people and with such huge questions being raised about animal welfare and the environment could certainly say it is civilised, but democratic? Moral? Caring? Certainly not!

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  • I have to agree with Sue, this is certainly not 'moral'; though one report did say the stress levels of these animals was very low and they wouldn't produce good levels of milk if it wasn't. . I suppose that means as long as they are fed and watered, comfortable, and have good company they are content. . I know there are many animals that are always wintered outdoors that would welcome a warm 'barn' with the company of others and plenty of good food for a change. Maybe we shouldn't all be anthropomorphising. .

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