Whether cows are housed indoors, grazed outdoors or organically, serious welfare concerns are common.
As part of intensification of production, the trend over time has been towards larger herds, larger farms, more indoor housing, and more concentrated diets. By 1996, 50% of US dairy cows had no pasture access, and 12% had no outside access at all .
In 2009, three New Zealand companies applied for resource consent to house nearly 18,000 cows in indoor cubicles for 24 hours a day, eight months of the year, and for the remaining four months to keep the cows inside for 12 hours a day . Although this proposal did not proceed, by 2015 it was estimated there were around 650 ‘free stall cow barns’ in New Zealand .
Indoor housing can provide protection from inclement weather. However, it can also result in crowding, and can restrict freedom of movement and the expression of natural social and grazing behaviour. These restrictions can cause stress, which also weakens the immune system. Build-up of urine and manure can also result in less hygienic housing. All of these factors combined can facilitate the spread of infectious diseases.
Prolonged standing on hard surfaces such as concrete can also increase problems such as sole ulcers and digital dermatitis, which cause lameness .
Outdoor farming systems often lack sufficient trees, hedges or other forms of shelter, especially when cattle are grazed intensively. This is increasingly common, with pasture growth assisted by artificial irrigation, which depletes water supplies. High stocking densities can also compact soils, increasing effluent run-off into rivers and streams.
Cattle in such outdoor systems are often exposed to excessive wind, rain, snow and sunshine, which can be stressful and can decrease their welfare [1-2]. Cattle are particularly vulnerable to snowfall during winter. They have a large body surface area, which may not be well insulated .
A small minority of beef cows die each year due to stress, starvation or other metabolic problems, dental problems, parasites, plant poisoning and accidents. Beef cattle are normally grazed extensively. This usually results in weekly rather than daily observation, which may delay treatment for ill or injured animals .
To be registered as an organic producer, dairy farmers must not use most veterinary medicines, including antibiotics. This makes treatment difficult for diseases such as mastitis and foot rot. These cases can be minimised with good management, but some cases may still occur which will not respond to acceptable organic treatments. Vaccination is allowed if there is a history of disease, and leptospirosis vaccination is mandatory for occupational health and safety reasons. Local anaesthetic is allowable for horn disbudding .
Organic farming restricts the use of medicines and artificial fertilisers and requires better management than conventional farming to minimise disease. If breakdowns of good management or unexpected circumstances occur, serious welfare problems can result .
For example, bad weather decreasing pasture production makes organic farms more vulnerable to feed scarcity, as fall-backs such as dietary urea and forage sourced from conventional properties cannot be used , because cattle must be given organic feed.
The use of alternative therapies may also raise welfare concerns, if disease is causing pain, distress or loss of fitness, and therapy is slower or less effective than conventional therapy. Evidence of effectiveness of alternative therapies is often lacking. Conventional medicines may be used if necessary, but treated animals must then leave the certified organic herd and lose their certification for 12 months or longer. This is costly for farmers, and may delay their use of conventional, effective therapies .
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