EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) has released its latest scientific opinion on the welfare of dairy cows on farm. This independent review was commissioned to support the ongoing revision of the European Union’s animal welfare legislation, as part of the European Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy.
The ’Welfare of dairy cows’ published on 16th May 2023 presents a comprehensive overview of the most recent scientific knowledge on the welfare of dairy cows. The findings will be used in the revision of the EU animal welfare legislation, including the revision of the existing Council Directive 98/58/EC concerning the protection of animals kept for farming purposes.
Main welfare strengths and hazards identified in different housing systems
The main strengths, weaknesses and hazards of poor welfare were identified for the most prevalent housing systems in the EU:
- Cubicle (free-stall) housing
- Open-bedded systems (bedded systems with straw yards, compost or dry manure)
- Systems with access to outdoor areas (systems with access to outdoor loafing area and systems with access to pasture)
The most prevalent housing systems in the EU are cubicle housing systems, followed by open-bedded systems and tie-stalls. The proportion of farms offering access to pasture has declined in several EU member states in the last decades, with an increasing number of farms converting to zero-grazing systems. The number of grazing days per year varies markedly between and within countries.
- Well designed cubicles can result in cleaner animals and improved udder health.
- Open-bedded systems promote natural lying behaviours and improved leg, claw and joint health. Deep bedding allows longer lying time and ease of lying down and rising up movements.
- Well managed systems with access to loafing areas and pasture provide improved conditions for cows to exercise, reduce antagonistic interactions with other cows and provide more opportunities for natural behaviours.
- Pasture-based systems were found to be the least restrictive, and they allow cows to walk freely, easily change posture and lie comfortably.
- The impact on animal welfare of each housing system is highly variable and affected by the quality of the physical environment and management on a specific farm.
- Tie-stalls were found to significantly impair welfare, particularly due to the duration of tethering, compared to loose-housing systems.
- For both tie-stalls and cubicle systems, hazards included inadequate lying surfaces and dimensions of the stall or cubicle.
- Space allowance and poor hygiene were issues identified in open-bedded systems, cubicle systems and outdoor loafing areas.
- Insufficient shelter and quality of floors and tracks/roads are key risks for outdoor loafing areas and pasture.
- Other main hazards in pasture-based systems included insufficient water and energy supply and inadequate parasite control.
The opinion investigated the five most relevant welfare consequences (locomotory disorders, mastitis, restriction of movement and resting problems, inability to perform comfort behaviour and metabolic disorders) for dairy cows, and their prevalence in different housing systems. Animal-based outcome measures (ABMs) were used to assess those welfare consequences.
- While there is substantial within-system variability in the prevalence of locomotory disorders, lameness is one of the most prevalent welfare issues for dairy cattle. Common risks included poor quality of lying areas, floor type and unhygienic floors. Gait and foot lesion scoring were identified as feasible ABMs for locomotory disorders.
- Incidence and prevalence of mastitis is highly variable within each system. Key risks included the type of bedding, hygiene of udders and poor hygiene at milking. ABMs for mastitis were identified as the incidence of clinical disease and routine measurement of individual somatic cell counts.
- Most hazards affecting restriction of movement and resting problems are system-specific, primarily tie-stall and cubicle systems, including lying surface, stall dimensions and type of bedding. ABMs for restriction of movement and resting problems included gait and lying behaviours.
- Tethering impairs cows’ ability to perform comfort behaviours. Cubicle dimensions and walkways and slippery floors hinder some comfort behaviours, while pasture access may facilitate some comfort behaviours. Risks include stocking density, flooring and lack of opportunities to use brushes. ABMs for inability to perform comfort behaviour include self-grooming, allogrooming and brush use.
- Housing system had a minor impact on metabolic health. Risks included feed management and dry cow management. Suitable ABMs for the occurrence of metabolic disorders are the incidence of clinical cases and body condition scoring. A variety of management and feeding practices increase the risk of metabolic disorders.
Five farm characteristics were identified that lead to the above welfare consequences and can be used to classify the level of on-farm welfare. These relate to space allowance, the number of cubicles per cow and cubicle specifications, high on-farm mortality, and less than 2 months per year with access to pasture.
- Dairy cows should not be permanently housed in tie-stalls.
- Cows should have access to well-drained pasture with shade.
- At least 1 cubicle per cow should be provided.
- Cubicles should have dry, soft and deformable lying surfaces, preferably with deep bedding.
- Dimensions and design of the lying area should be appropriate for the size of the cow (minimum width and length of cubicles and other features are detailed).
- When using bare concrete, bedding of at least 30 cm thickness should be provided. When using mats and mattresses, bedding with a minimum depth of 5 cm of compressed material should be provided. For instance, this corresponds to 3 kg of straw per day to be provided per cubicle space.
- A total indoor area, including lying areas, of at least 9m2/ cow should be provided.
- Clean, dry, non-slip surfaces and avoiding sharp edges on walking and standing surfaces.
- Rubber coated floor (or other deformable, non-slip standing and walking surface) at the feed manger and in the alleys should be used.
- Tracks to pasture should be even-surfaced, free from stones and debris.
- Brushes should be available in all loose-housing systems.
- Regular gait scoring with early treatment/ intervention of lame cows.
- Udder health should be routinely monitored using incidence rate of clinical mastitis and individual somatic cell counts.
- Body condition scoring should be routinely carried out to indicate risk of metabolic disease.
- Preventive strategies based on feeding and management practices should be in place to minimise the occurrence of metabolic disease.
- Individual cow beta-hydroxybutyrate levels or ketones in early lactation should be used to monitor herd-level subclinical ketosis.
- Validation of the risk-based scheme to classify farms at risk of poor welfare.
EFSA recommendations support Compassion’s view
Compassion welcomes this new EFSA report as it gives additional robust scientific evidence to several of our key recommendations on dairy cow welfare.
- Tethering should not be practiced
- At least 1 cubicle per cow and increased space allowance in open yards
- Provision of comfortable deep bedding
- Access to pasture during the grazing season (at least 120days/year for 6hours/day)
- Routine assessment of mobility scores, clinical cases of mastitis, body condition scores, culling rate, longevity and flight distance.
We encourage dairy producers and food companies to consider as many of these recommendations as possible and to incorporate them in their animal welfare policies and continuous welfare improvement plans. We also strongly recommend that the welfare of dairy calves is addressed on dairy farms; please see our summary of the EFSA report on the welfare of calves.
Producers and companies committed to keeping dairy cows in higher welfare systems can apply to our Good Dairy Award.
This will not only significantly improve animal welfare in their supply chain but will enable companies to be prepared for some of the likely changes to the forthcoming legislation on the protection of calves in Europe.