Raising contented cattle makes welfare, production sense

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Dr. Steven Berry
"Milking the Golden Cow-Her Comfort" was the presentation given by Dr. Steven Berry of Davis, Calif, at the 2000 Forum

Contented food animals produce better. Many producers recognize it pays off from a production as well as a welfare standpoint to strive for animal comfort, whether the animals are beef cattle, dairy cows, or veal calves.

Several speakers at the AVMA Animal Welfare Forum described production practices from a bovine welfare perspective. Their observations reflected the concept that proactive health care and disease prevention are integral elements of bovine welfare.

Dr. Steven Berry, an extension veterinarian in dairy management and health at the University of California-Davis, described the welfare of cows in large dairies.

With dairies growing so large, efficiency and profitability sometimes supplant the animal care focus, Dr. Berry said. He contrasted husbandry with the productivity approach, herd health with production medicine. His desire is to see the pendulum swing back from viewing the animal as a production unit to part of a herd.

Quality assurance programs such as the California Dairy Quality Assurance program encourage producers to maintain good animal care practices and direct the focus back to the animals, he said. Dr. Berry holds on-farm workshops to promote animal welfare and help producers understand what to do and why.

He approached the topic of cow comfort by addressing various welfare concerns that surface throughout the yearlong lactation cycle.

During the peripartum period, for example, the cow will go from producing zero to 90 pounds of milk one day after calving, a "tremendous metabolic drain," so their care must take this into account. Neonatal dairy calves should receive high-quality colostrum within two hours of birth and certainly by 12 hours, and although it must sometimes be fed via an esophageal tube, it is for the calf's long-term well-being. (Newborn beef calves will harvest their own colostrum but they still need the colostrum soon after birth.)

Speaking candidly, Dr. Berry acknowledged that one welfare issue is the less- attentive care given bull calves than heifer calves. Bull calves are sometimes taken from the farm when only one day old.

Besides the monitoring of peripartum cows, he covered welfare issues associated with milking procedures, free-stall housing, nutrition, hygiene, hoof trimming, tail docking, natural breeding vs artificial insemination, and lameness, which he noted is a crucial issue just gaining recognition.

Nutrition can play a role in lameness, when for example there is an increase in dietary concentrates, Dr. Berry said. He pointed to the importance of teaching producers, animal scientists, and veterinary students how to prevent and treat lameness.

The most important determinant of cow welfare is management, Dr. Berry said, and the ideal "cow person" is a confident introvert, a personality that puts cows at ease.

Dr. Thomas Fuhrmann, who spoke on dairy heifer replacements, placed the same strong emphasis Dr. Berry did on colostrum intake.

"Colostral antibodies are so important because, unlike human babies, dairy calves have no antibodies at birth," Dr. Fuhrmann said. "Antibodies must permeate the calf's bloodstream when it's porous, during the first 12 hours. The first milk contains a six percent to 14 percent antibody concentration."

Dr. Fuhrmann owns a dairy consulting practice and is an industry consultant. His DairyWorks systematizes important procedures such as ensuring early colostrum ingestion and devising calf feeding protocols, rather than leaving them to chance. Producers must have systems in place, he said, and train people well in those systems. Veterinarians on dairy farms must be technicians, teachers, and consultants.

The US dairy industry is changing dramatically, Dr. Fuhrmann observed. "You can't find dairy cows grazing in the field any more." From 1991-1996, US milk production increased five percent, with a four percent decrease in the number of milk cows and a nine percent decrease in the number of farms. One of the dairies he serves milks 3,200 cows three times a day.

He gave three reasons dairy producers need replacement heifers: to offset cull rates, improve genetics, and ensure biosecurity. Cull rates are purely a matter of economics, he said: producers can maintain only a finite number of animals.

Dr. Fuhrmann believes that dairy producers are concerned about animal welfare and pay attention to their young animals because they realize a happier animal is more productive. He compared raising a dairy calf to rearing a child from infancy through the teenage years. All the calf's needs are met, beginning with a criblike setting for neonates. "We go from individualized hutches to pens to bigger pens."

That same tender care is given to veal calves, according to Dr. Russell L. Schnepper, Platteville, Wis. "We pamper the calf for 20 weeks in a controlled environment and give him a proactive health program."

An international consultant for the food animal industry, Dr. Schnepper has a special interest in Holstein calves. He said that, although veal production is the most maligned area of the beef industry, it has the lowest death rate among young calves.

Holstein veal calves are raised in a veal barn for four months until they reach the weight of 450 to 500 pounds. Veal calf barns are "immaculate," protected from the elements, temperature controlled, and well lit, Dr. Schnepper said.

Individual pens with rubber-covered floors allow natural movement. "Comingling of baby calves is disastrous," he explained.

Lightweight tethers are used, but according to Dr. Schnepper they are only to keep the calves from soiling their feed buckets.

Tests show that only a third of veal calves receive adequate colostrum. The calves are fed milk replacers that are blended fat: 20 percent coconut oil, 40 percent tallow, and 40 percent lard. Dr. Schnepper defined the distinction between bob veal and milkfed veal: bob veal are calves that are marketed at less than 150 lbs, and are not marketed as fancy milk fed veal.

Drs. Furhmann and Held
Former AVMA Executive Board chairman, Dr. Stanley Held (right) of Buffalo, Minn, talks with speaker Dr. Thomas Furhmann of Tempe, Ariz.

Guidelines set by the American Veal Association (www.vealfarm.com) require members to raise calves humanely, and slaughter plants accept animals only from producers who are members of the association. An issues management team within the association works to detect industry problems.

The Veal Quality Assurance Program involves producers, veterinarians, suppliers, packers, and feed companies. Producers agree to conditions conducive to the calf's welfare that include honoring the veterinarian-client-patient relationship.

Dr. Robert A. Smith is a beef feedlot consultant who holds a chair in beef health and production at Oklahoma State University and is editor of The Bovine Practitioner.

He believes that cattle deserve the best care possible, consumers expect humane care, and happy animals produce better.

To convey how the health and comfort of beef cattle are protected, Dr. Smith described production practices each step of the way to and at the feedlot.

Weaning takes place at approximately 205 days of age, but anywhere from seven to eight months. The animal usually weighs slightly over 500 pounds.

Many recently weaned calves spend time in a backgrounding yard, where they are treated for parasites, vaccinated and managed through any respiratory problems. Many calves then go to a stocker operation or feedlot. Stocker calves are at the stage between weaning and the feedlot, when the animal is grown primarily on a forage diet of wheat and grass. Many steers and heifers do not enter the feedlot until they are yearlings, or one year of age.

Feedlots are getting bigger, Dr. Smith said, whereas most farms and ranches are still mom-and-pop operations. Typical feedlots resemble small cities. Dirt pens holding from 75 to 300 cattle are separated by "streets" along which trucks deliver freshly prepared feed two to three times a day. The target weight for steers is 1,200 pounds and heifers, 1,100 pounds.

Pen riders on horseback oversee the cattle's condition. Most feedlots use a night watchman to monitor the cattle and activities while the regular crew is off duty. A crew trained by consulting veterinarians assists in evaluating the condition of a sick or injured steer or heifer.

A veterinarian and nutritionist regularly visit the typical feedlot. An agricultural engineer, entomologist, and economist are used occasionally. The veterinarian's role encompasses diagnosis, personnel training, treatment programs, prevention programs, records analysis, quality assurance, and residue avoidance.

Monthly death loss as a percentage of inventory is 0.12 percent respiratory, 0.04 percent digestive, and 0.07 percent other causes. Reformulated diets have dramatically reduced death losses from digestive diseases in recent years.

Concern for animal suffering and animal satisfaction are not easily measured directly, Dr. Smith said, but feedlot behavior is similar to that observed on pasture. The natural behavior of cattle in feedlots is gregarious, curious, and playful, especially in the early evening. Feedlot design and environment incorporate features such as dirt mounds, which come into play in certain cattle behaviors.

Dr. Smith acknowledged that certain aspects of beef cattle management should be improved. These include instituting more preconditioning programs, castrating and dehorning early in life, selecting for better disposition, learning more about dust control, and seeking better methods of managing bullers.