Are Improvements in Dairy Really Harming Our Cows?

Can Dairies Have Exceptional Welfare AND Exceptional Production?

This idea of “having our cake and eating it too” in production agriculture has been weighing on my mind since attending the recent Wisconsin Dairy and Beef Well-Being Conference. Over 400 veterinarians, welfare officers, ag professionals, students and farmers gathered for the program hosted by UW-Extention with a key note from Dr. Temple Grandin.

Dr. Grandin addressed this issue with an overwhelming answer…no.

Her theory of “biological systems overload” is based on the premise that we have pushed our animals past their biological limits, causing major animal welfare problems. Particularly “lameness, thin body condition, swollen hocks, fat hoof lesions and lower immune function in dairy cattle.”

Watching Dr. Grandin deliver a keynote is nothing short of remarkable. I respect her extensive work on the design of handling facilities and meat packing plants as well as her published research and books on animal handling.

So it was with great frustration that I listened to her presentation with a slide deck highlighting pictures credited to HSUS. (Yes, credit to an activist organization that only a few weeks ago agreed to pay $15.75 million for a racketeering lawsuit filed against them under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.) There are great improvements going on in our dairy industry that Dr. Grandin failed to recognize. A dear friend taught me there is no need to spend time identifying a problem if you don’t spend more time on it’s solution.

The UW School of Veterinary Medicine has been researching and working alongside Wisconsin dairy producers for over a decade to help build and renovate barns that promote exceptional health, welfare and productivity. The Dairyland Initiative is an amazing resource that has brought farmers, their advisors, builders and lenders together to advance the latest research based housing guidelines for dairy cattle. There are over 3,000 users today and the program supports workshops worldwide, a consultant network, direct facility consults/facility design assessments, presentations and webinars in 7 countries, and has been highlighted in several publications. Their work on lameness prevention programs is key to continual improvements.

Worldwide dairy cattle lameness prevalence shows a huge range (according to the peer-reviewed published research from 1993 to 2014) and is variable among region, validating some of Dr. Grandin’s comments. But to throw everyone under the bus based on the worst herds is unfair – especially in a state that is leading the way. Wisconsin’s best herds rival the lowest levels of lameness found in grazing herds around the globe…all while giving twice as much milk!

After working as a nutrition consultant in the dairy industry for nearly 15 years, observing tens of thousands of cows, I have seen firsthand how the highest standards of animal welfare and minimal lameness are required to achieve high production. Farmers do not sacrifice one to get the other, because you cannot achieve high production without animal welfare as your top priority. All decisions made on farms today are about achieving optimum production through the very best care while minimizing stress on our livestock. It seems absurd to propose we go backwards in time and breed for smaller, less productive animals, which is what Dr. Grandin suggests. (Even though there are days I would trade my iPhone 6 Plus in for my old bag phone!) I truly believe the solutions are to be found ahead of us, not behind us.

Dairies continue to improve barn designs and remodel older facilities to achieve improved cow comfort. There is a very precise science, supported by a vast amount of research that specifies exact stall dimensions including width, height, length and lunge space requirements and bedding types that are best for cows. Farmers continually implement new and improved hoof health programs with routine preventative care and more skilled hoof trimmers than ever before. Heat abatement and ventilation in barns today are also top priorities, using improved methods in temperature control, air movement and evaporative cooling.

Our very own University of Wisconsin is home to the most advanced and latest research on cow comfort and hoof health with the worldwide experts in this field. The work of Dr. Nigel Cook and Dr. Ken Nordlund has been invaluable to the dairy producers in our state and we have the results to prove it.