Physical problems

Numerous physical problems cause pain and suffering for farmed cattle. In some cases, pain can be severe. These problems may also lead to premature death, when farmers choose to kill affected animals rather than spend money treating them, or because their productivity is reduced.


Lameness has been described as the “most important animal welfare problem for the dairy cow” [1]. Around two thirds of cases are caused by disruptions of the horn of the claws (e.g., ulcers, foreign body penetration, abscesses), and around one third are caused by infectious disease (such as digital dermatitis and foot rot) [2]. Lameness can cause severe pain, decreased mobility, decreased feed consumption and decreased milk production, which can cost farmers hundreds of dollars per cow, annually [3].

Lameness figures vary widely between farms, largely due to differences in management of the cows and their environment [4]. Lameness may be increasing over time. Prior to 1980, lameness incidence per lactation was less than 10% within US herds. By 1999 it was around 38% [3]. It has been estimated that 8-10% of cattle are usually lame in Australasia [5], and that 15-20% of New Zealand dairy cows suffer one bout of lameness annually [R Laven, pers. comm., n.d. in 6].

Lameness is increased by wet or unhygienic conditions, or when cattle must walk long distances, along poorly maintained tracks. It is especially common when stones are present, or when cattle are hurried and bunched in groups, and unable to lower their heads to see where they are placing their feet [7].

Increasing herd sizes means cows must graze further from the dairy shed to find sufficient grass. This means they must spend more time walking, and have less time available for rest. They may also face greater competition accessing water trough space or supplementary feed [6]. Lameness may also be increased by concentrated diets [7].

Lameness is also increased when cattle must stand on concrete, which is increasing with greater use of indoor housing. Sole ulcers and digital dermatitis can be increased [8]. Indoor stalls that make it difficult for cows to get up and down, that are uncomfortable, or that lack sufficient cubicle space, also increase lameness. On the other hand, rubber mats and loose housing on deep straw can decrease lameness. However, loose housing on deep straw can also be less hygienic, predisposing to mastitis (udder inflammation).

Lameness lasts on average for 27 (+17) days [9] and can cause severe pain. It also causes increased hoof sensitivity, and stimuli that are not normally painful, may become so. These effects may last for weeks despite treatment [10] and treatment may have mixed results [10-11].

Numerical gait scoring systems are used to identify cases of lameness, allowing treatment. However, some lameness is difficult to detect, partly because increasing herd sizes leave farmers with less time to spend watching their animals. This means that some cows go untreated.


  1. Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC). (1997). Report on the Welfare of Dairy Cattle. Surbiton, UK: Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
  2. Kossaibati MA & Esslemont RJ. (1997). The costs of production diseases in dairy herds in England. The Vet J, 154(1), 41-51.
  3. Rushen J. (2001). Assessing the welfare of dairy cattle. J Appl Anim Welf Sci 4(3): 223-234.
  4. Cook NB & Nordlund KV. (2009). The influence of the environment on dairy cow behavior, claw health and herd lameness dynamics. The Vet J, 179(3), 360-369.
  5. Parkinson TJ, Vermunt JJ & Malmo J. (2010). Diseases of Cattle in Australasia: a Comprehensive Textbook. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Veterinary Association Foundation for Continuing Education.
  6. Stafford KJ. (2013). Animal Welfare in New Zealand. Cambridge, New Zealand: New Zealand Society of Animal Production.
  7. Laven RA & Holmes CW. (2008). A review of the potential impact of increased use of housing on the health and welfare of dairy cattle in New Zealand. New Zealand Vet J, 56(4), 151-157.
  8. Laven RA & Lawrence KR. (2006). An evaluation of the seasonality of veterinary treatments for lameness in UK dairy cattle. J Dairy Sci, 89(10), 3858-3865.
  9. Tranter WP & Morris RS. (1991). A case study of lameness in three dairy herds. NZ Vet J, 39(3), 88-96.
  10. Laven RA, Lawrence KE, Weston JF, et al. (2008). Assessment of the duration of the pain response associated with lameness in dairy cows, and the influence of treatment. NZ Vet J, 56(5), 210-217.
  11. Whay HR, Webster AJ & Waterman-Pearson AE. (2005). Role of ketoprofen in the modulation of hyperalgesia associated with lameness in dairy cattle. Vet Rec, 157(23), 729-733.


Beef cattle may suffer nutritional stress when pasture cover is insufficient, or their metabolic needs are increased, e.g. during cold winter weather.

For dairy cows, foetal growth is most rapid during the last trimester of pregnancy, and lactation after birth also consumes a very high level of biological resources. Modern dairy cows are so highly productive that they are often physically unable to consume sufficient calories to replace what they use during this period, resulting in a negative daily energy balance, chronic hunger, and a weakened immune system. Cows lose body condition for six to 10 weeks after calving [1], and on New Zealand farms, may also lose condition during late lactation. It has been observed that New Zealand dairy cows are thinner than beef cattle, and thinner than European dairy cows [2].

These cows are at significant risk of metabolic and infectious diseases [3-4], which can result in serious welfare problems.


  1. Roche JR, Berry DP & Kolver ES. (2006). Holstein-Friesian strain and feed effects on milk production, body weight, and body condition score profiles in grazing dairy cows. J Dairy Sci, 89(9), 3532-3543.
  2. Stafford KJ. (2013). Animal Welfare in New Zealand. Cambridge, New Zealand: New Zealand Society of Animal Production.
  3. Ingvartsen KL, Dewhurst RJ & Friggens NC. (2003). On the relationship between lactational performance and health: is it yield or metabolic imbalance that cause production diseases in dairy cattle? A position paper. Livestock Prodn Sci, 83(2), 277-308.
  4. Goff S. (2006). Animal welfare and international trade strategy. MAF Biosecurity NZ, 79, 6.

Calf induction

To meet farm production schedules and contracts, cows must calve within a specific, limited period. If this is unlikely to occur naturally for certain cows, they may be artificially induced to calve prematurely via one or more injections of steroids [1]. These disrupt the hormonal maintenance of pregnancy. In 2010 about 5% of the national herd, or 170,000 cows, were induced, with the figure as high as 25% on some farms [Wayne Rickets, NZVA, pers. comm. n.d., in 1].

Mortality for prematurely induced calves can be high. Fifty percent die if induced at less than seven weeks pre-term, and more than 95% die if induction is greater than nine weeks pre-term [2]. Calves induced more than one month premature are expected to malinger and eventually die, and Stafford [1] recommends killing these as soon as possible via a blow to the head. Farmers may crush their skulls with hammers or shoot them. Some calves may be left in paddocks to die.

Calf induction can also increase the risk of retaining the foetal placenta [3], which can result in very serious medical problems.

SAFE campaigned for calf induction to be banned, unless there are pregnancy complications and it is in the best interests of the pregnant cow. With the help of the Green Party and a strong public outcry about induction, the dairy industry and the NZ Veterinary Association were pushed to announce a voluntary ban on ‘routine’ inductions. This came into force on the 1st of June, 2015.

Calf inductions are still not entirely ruled out, however. Dairy NZ [4] states: “For circumstances outside a farmer’s control that have a direct impact on reproductive performance, (e.g. adverse climatic event, disease outbreak), farmers may apply to their respective dairy company, via their veterinarian, for approval of a short-term dispensation to carry out inductions under specific criteria.”

This means the door remains open for inductions.


  1. Stafford KJ. (2013). Animal Welfare in New Zealand. Cambridge, New Zealand: New Zealand Society of Animal Production.
  2. Holmes CW, Brookes IM, Garrick DJ, et al. (2007). Milk Production from Pasture: Principles and Practice. Palmerston North, New Zealand: Massey University.
  3. Mansell PD, Cameron AR, Taylor DP, et al. (2006). Induction of parturition in dairy cattle and its effects on health and subsequent lactation and reproductive performance. Aust Vet J, 84(9), 312-316.
  4. DairyNZ (n.d.). Strict induction rules, accessed 30 Nov. 2017.

Birthing difficulties

In the New Zealand dairy herd as many as 15% of heifers and 10% of cows have difficulties giving birth each year [1]. (A cow is called a heifer until giving birth to her first calf). Among beef cattle, average calf mortality during birth ranges from 0-15% depending on the bull and cow size and breed, and on management factors, and is probably responsible for two thirds of all calf deaths [2].

The pain experienced by both the dam (mother) and calf are significant. Sometimes veterinarians or farmers may assist, but not always, especially in large herds [3-4]. Birthing difficulties can also damage hind leg nerves, resulting in ‘downer’ cows who are unable to rise. If these cows do not recover they will die. When birthing is unsuccessful, the cow initially experiences great distress, followed by depression. The foetus will die and rot, which can lead to the death of the mother.

With beef cattle, the major calving problem relates to lack of supervision. Problems may not be seen or addressed in time, and the calf and cow may die or require euthanasia as a result. Another problem is the breeding of beef cows that require caesarean sections to give birth. The Belgian Blue breed is notorious for this problem [2].


  1. Holmes CW, Brookes IM, Garrick DJ, et al. (2007). Milk Production from Pasture: Principles and Practice. Palmerston North, New Zealand: Massey University.
  2. Stafford KJ. (2013). Animal Welfare in New Zealand. Cambridge, New Zealand: New Zealand Society of Animal Production.
  3. Mee JF. (2008). Prevalence and risk factors for dystocia in dairy cattle: A review. The Vet J, 176(1), 93-101.
  4. Stafford KJ. (2011). The welfare implications of dystocia in sheep and cattle. Proc NZ Soc Animal Production, 71, 194-202.]


The large, heavy udders of modern, highly producing dairy cows, have increased risks of mastitis (udder inflammation). This is exacerbated by stress and unhygienic conditions.

In a large New Zealand-wide study in 2007, the average mastitis rate was 12.7 cases per hundred cows [1]. Acute mastitis is painful, and also contaminates milk with white blood cells, which are pus cells. Mastitis cases can last for two months, or even longer.


  1. McDougall S, Arthur DG, Bryan MA, et al. (2007). Clinical and bacteriological response to treatment of clinical mastitis with one of three intramammary antibiotics. NZ Vet J, 55(4), 161-170.
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