'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.