Improving dairy cow welfare and farm profitability

Dairy cows and the dairy farming industry in the UK and overseas are benefiting from strategic animal-husbandry changes and lameness-control programmes.

In 1997, the UK’s Farm Animal Welfare Council advised that lameness in dairy cattle had reached unacceptable levels.

Lameness is considered to be any abnormality that causes a cow to change the way that she walks and can be a result of disease, management practices or environmental factors. It can cause significant productivity loss associated with reduced milk yield, infertility and early culling.

Initial research conducted by the University of Bristol, demonstrated to policy makers that lameness was also a genuine welfare concern causing pain for the animals.

Developing a Standardised Lameness Score (SLS)

University of Bristol researchers devised a scoring system, known as the Standardised Lameness Score (SLS), which helped identify problem animals, assess the severity of the problem and monitor the effectiveness of treatment.

Further experimental studies on the University of Bristol farm then showed that housing system, diet and calving had a strong influence on the prevalence of one of the principal causes of lameness – claw horn lesions in the hoof.

The research team visited over 200 UK dairy herds across the UK and found that on average 37 per cent of animals had some degree of lameness.

Bristol subsequently developed Husbandry Advisory Tools (HATS), which offered farm-specific solutions that could help reduce factors in the grazing and farmyard environment that were shown to contribute to the incidence of lameness.

Widespread adoption across the dairy industry

In 2008, DairyCo, a levy-funded, not-for-profit organisation working on behalf of Britain’s dairy farmers, launched the DairyCo Mobility Score lameness management tool.

Developed with the University of Bristol, and based on the SLS, DairyCo distributed information on this scoring tool to farmers around the UK.

As a result, 39 per cent of surveyed farmers have reported using SLS scoring at least every three months and major retailers, such as Tesco, McDonald’s, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda and Waitrose are also using the scoring system.

The scoring system has also been adapted for use in New Zealand, which is a major dairy producer with over 11,000 farms and 4.5 million cows.

In 2013, the DairyCo Mobility Score was included in the Red Tractor Dairy Assurance Scheme, which is supported by major retailers and certifies over 90 per cent of UK dairy production.

Inclusion in this assurance scheme means that the industry can prioritise support for farms with high levels of lameness. In addition, Danone (Europe’s largest dairy company) is promoting use of the scoring system to over 27,000 farms.

The implementation of Bristol’s husbandry advice on farms resulted in a reduction in lameness in 73 per cent of participating farms between 2005 and 2009.

Subsequently, an EU-supported Rural Development Programme in England (RDPE) endorsed the roll-out of this lameness advice to the South West, which recruited 383 herds onto the programme as of 2013, some of which are already reporting reductions in lameness. Other regions have now adopted the approach with lameness-related RDPE support.

Increasing dairy farm profitability

Lameness is estimated to cost the dairy industry £125 million per year. Bristol’s lameness research has not only resulted in direct welfare benefits for dairy cows, the reductions in lameness have also improved profitability of dairy farms in the UK and overseas.

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