Exploring the value of routinely collected herd data for estimating dairy cattle welfare

M. de Vries, E.A.M. Bokkers, G. van Schaik, B. Engel, T. Dijkstra, I.J.M. de Boer

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34 Citations (Scopus)


Routine on-farm assessment of dairy cattle welfare is time consuming and, therefore, expensive. A promising strategy to assess dairy cattle welfare more efficiently is to estimate the level of animal welfare based on herd data available in national databases. Our aim was to explore the value of routine herd data (RHD) for estimating dairy cattle welfare at the herd level. From November 2009 through March 2010, 7 trained observers collected data for 41 welfare indicators in a selected sample of 183 loose-housed and 13 tethered Dutch dairy herds (herd size: 10 to 211 cows) using the Welfare Quality protocol for cattle. For the same herds, RHD relating to identification and registration, management, milk production and composition, and fertility were extracted from several national databases. The RHD were used as potential predictors for each welfare indicator in logistic regression at the herd level. Nineteen welfare indicators were excluded from the predictions, because they showed a prevalence below 5% (15 indicators), or were already listed as RHD (4 indicators). Predictions were less accurate for 7 welfare indicators, moderately accurate for 14 indicators, and highly accurate for 1 indicator. By forcing to detect almost all herds with a welfare problem (sensitivity of at least 97.5%), specificity ranged from 0 to 81%. By forcing almost no herds to be incorrectly classified as having a welfare problem (specificity of at least 97.5%), sensitivity ranged from 0 to 67%. Overall, the best-performing prediction models were those for the indicators access to at least 2 drinkers (resource based), percentage of very lean cows, cows lying outside the supposed lying area, and cows with vulvar discharge (animal based). The most frequently included predictors in final models were percentages of on-farm mortality in different lactation stages. It was concluded that, for most welfare indicators, RHD have value for estimating dairy cattle welfare. The RHD can serve as a prescreening tool for detecting herds with a welfare problem, but this should be followed by a verification of the level of welfare in an on-farm assessment to identify false-positive herds. Consequently, the number of farm visits needed for routine welfare assessments can be reduced. The RHD also hold value for continuous monitoring of dairy cattle welfare. Prediction models developed in this study, however, should first be validated in additional field studies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)715-730
JournalJournal of Dairy Science
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • body condition score
  • somatic-cell count
  • milk-production
  • reproductive-performance
  • social-dominance
  • animal-welfare
  • cows
  • behavior
  • weight
  • productivity

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