September 30, 2022
Study shows welfare of dairy cattle worse than beef cattle
A University of Copenhagen led study found that dairy cattle experience worse welfare compared to cattle raised for beef due to human intervention, Earth.com reported.
The researchers found that dairy production involves a higher level of human intervention because dairy cattle are used to provide milk for human consumption, whereas beef cattle produce milk for their own calves. This finding has significant implications for how these animals and their calves are raised and managed.
The researchers asked 70 top experts in bovine welfare from around the world to assess the welfare risks of the most common production systems in their countries.
Contrary to cattle in the most common beef production systems, the welfare of cattle in the most common dairy production systems is worse. Dr Roi Mandel, a postdoctoral fellow in Veterinary and Animal Sciences at the University of Copenhagen and study lead author, said these results contradict a very long and widely held belief in society.
Dr Mandel said dairy cows, as defined from the first calving onward, are not the only animals at higher welfare risk in the dairy sector. Regardless of the production goal, be it for red-meat, veal, or to replace the dam, experts rated the welfare risk of calves originating from dairy herds as being higher than that of calves originating from beef herds.
These cows frequently experience more stress than those raised solely for meat because the milk from dairy cows is produced in significantly higher volumes than that from beef cows and is collected one to three times per day, frequently for 305 days or more per lactation. Long-term genetic selection for high milk yield in dairy cows and the early separation of calves from their dams are other major causes of poor welfare, with the latter resulting in health issues like lameness, mastitis, and reproductive and metabolic disorders in the animals.
Dr Mandel said that it may be possible to reduce the welfare gap between the beef and dairy industries by refining or simply eliminating, when possible, husbandry practises that have long been recognised as impairing the welfare of both cows and their calves, such as early separation of the calves from their dams.
Dr Mandel also said improving overall welfare, for example by better training animal handlers, would be a complementary strategy that applies to both the dairy and beef sectors. Unfortunately, animal handler training is not required in many parts of the world. Periodic training updates might be needed in other nations.
He said increasing consumer awareness of the impact of milk production on the welfare of animals in the dairy industry and the fact that dairy production also results in the production of meat will lead to more sustainable and responsible food choices. A first step in this process could be to label the food packaging with the meat's (beef or dairy herd) origin.