Challenges of assessing welfare in pasture-based dairy production systems

Robin Crossley, E. Kennedy, Eddie Bokkers, I.J.M. de Boer, Muireann Conneely

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Pasture-based dairy systems are often perceived to provide cows with the best welfare. Pasture is frequently reported to reduce lameness by providing more comfortable walking and lying sutfaces and greater exercise, as well as allowing expression of a wider range of social behaviours. However, pasture based dairy production is practiced in only select countries, such as lreland and New Zealand, where weather conditions allow for nearly year-round grass growth. Within these systems there has been little research into the welfare status of the cows. Several methods of assessing animal welfare have been developed and used on farm, such as the Animal Needs Index in Germany and Austria, the Bristol Welfare Assurance Programme in the UK, and the current gold-standard in Europe for evaluating the welfare of dairy cattle, the Welfare Quality assessment protocol. However, such assessments were designed to evaluate housed dairy cows and thus do not address the unique challenges of pasture-based systems. Most of these existing assessments aim to include a variety of measures that are animal based, resource based and management based. However, evalualing management and resource measures, such as appropriate housing conditions (e.g. feeding, flooring or bedding type) and how cows function within these conditions, may prove difficult to assess in a pasture-based system, where cows are grazing for the majority of the year. Additionally, because the descriptions of assessment measures are targeted to cows housed indoors, they may be open to interpretation by assessors of grazing cows, leading to inconsistent application of the protocol. Requirements for feed provision, for example, that describe feed avaliability at a bunk or feed alley may be difficult to translate into a system where adequate feed provision is related to grazing time and residual grazing height. Existing welfare assessments may also exclude evaluation of important contributing factors, such as daily walking distance between paddocks and the milking parlour, which may greatly impact lameness. Addition all uncertain included measures, such as avoidance distance, that must be performed under specific conditions may be difficult or impractical to perform with animals at pasture. Based on this review of existing protocols, we suggest the development of a practical and comprehensive welfare assessment targeted towards pasture based dairy production systems. The assessment should incorporate pasture specific descriptions and additionaJ measures such as walking distance, roadway condition and rumen 611. Not only would this benefit total grazing systems, but also indoor housing systems in countries that practice seasonal grazing, such as the Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium. Resulting data would identify areas where pasture-based systems are excelling at maintaining a high level of animal welfare, as well as areas that need improvement, and provide a benchmark for welfare status between farms.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jul 2018
EventISAE 2018: 52nd Congress of the International Society for Applied Ethology - Charlottetown, Canada
Duration: 30 Jul 20183 Aug 2018


OtherISAE 2018

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