EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) has released its latest scientific opinion on the welfare of calves 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 calves’ released on 29 March presents a comprehensive overview of the most recent scientific knowledge on the welfare of calves. The findings will be used in the revision of the EU animal welfare legislation, including the revision of the existing Council Directive 2008/199/EC providing minimum standards for the protection of calves.
The publication covers the general welfare of calves kept in both dairy and veal farms, across different husbandry systems. In addition, the Commission asked EFSA to look in more detail at 3 specific areas:
- Welfare of male dairy calves reared for white veal
- Risk of limited cow-calf contact
- Animal-based measures to monitor on-farm welfare in slaughterhouses
Main welfare hazards identified
The opinion identifies 15 highly relevant welfare consequences across the different husbandry systems, taking into account prevalence, severity and duration of the welfare consequence in each system. The most common were respiratory disorders, inability to perform exploratory or foraging behaviour, gastroenteric disorders and group stress.
Animal-based outcome measures (ABMs) are used to assess the suggested welfare consequences. Also detailed are the associated hazards contributing to each welfare consequence, and measures to prevent, correct or mitigate them are proposed.
The main welfare hazards identified in individual housing were restricted space allowance, limited contact with peers/dam, a barren environment (mostly in veal farms), a low number of milk meals and, in calves kept in dairy farms, the provision of restricted amounts of milk.
Low space allowance, lack of bedding and slatted floors were recurrent hazards in group housing.
The report provides several detailed recommendations to improve current husbandry practices and the welfare of calves, including:
- Keeping calves in small (2-7 calves), stable groups and/or with the dam within the first week of life (i.e. before day 7) onwards.
- Keeping dairy calves with the dam for a minimum of 24 hours and being housed with another calf from that point onwards. Prolonged cow-calf contact (CCC) during the whole pre-weaning period should increasingly be implemented due to the welfare benefits for the calf and the cow. Alternatively, a foster cow can be used when prolonged cow-calf contact is not possible. More research is needed on how to implement CCC systems and foster-cow rearing at large scale.
- Increasing space allowance from the current minimum requirement (1.5m2 per calf in individual housing, 1.8m2 in group housing) to 3m2 to reduce behavioural restriction and to allow calves to perform some locomotor play behaviour.
- Providing dedicated lying areas with a deformable surface, ideally bedding.
- Housing calves in buildings with optimal ventilation.
- Calves kept outside should have access to shade or insulated shelter, in addition to dry, deformable (and insulating if in cold regions) bedding.
- Providing 10-12% of body weight of good quality colostrum up to 6 hours after birth.
- The amount of milk provided should be ~20% of their body weight per day until at least 4 weeks of life, provided through a teat and over at least 3 meals a day. Abrupt weaning should be avoided by gradually decreasing the amount of milk and on an individual basis.
- Providing long roughage in racks, particularly with a high iron content (such as hay) for veal calves to prevent anaemia, and permanent access to drinking water.
- Transport events and regrouping should be avoided through fattening calves on-farm or close-by.
- Avoiding long journeys (>8 hours).
- Calves should not be sold through auction markets.
- Standardised collection of animal-based measures at slaughterhouses (e.g. lung lesions, abomasal lesions, and body condition scores) and behavioural animal-based measures (e.g. exploratory and foraging behaviours) collected on-farm.
EFSA recommendations support Compassion's view
Compassion welcomes this new EFSA report as it gives additional robust scientific evidence to our key recommendations on calf welfare:
All calves must be:
- Reared in group housing.
- Be provided with adequate bedding.
- Be provided with appropriate fibre ad libitum.
- Be provided with good quality colostrum within the first 6 hours after birth.
- Transport time should be limited to a maximum of 8 hours, with no exports.
We encourage dairy and veal 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.
Producers and companies committing to rear dairy calves and/or veal in higher welfare systems can apply to our Good Calf 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.
Find out more about how to improve the welfare of dairy cows and calves here.