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Understanding cow behaviour to improve their welfare on smallholder dairy farms

Broadening Horizons N°10, July 2014

By John Moran*

The demand for dairy produce is growing worldwide. Unfortunately keeping dairy cows in tropical conditions in developing countries is fraught with risks to their welfare, and performance is usually well below that achieved in western countries. Although many developing countries are currently importing much of their dairy requirements from developed countries, most governments are also expanding their own dairy industries.

Keeping cows indoors in tie stalls is all too common in peri-urban settings due to the shortage of land for grazing systems. Unfortunately all too often, not enough attention is being given to ensuring these stock are sufficiently well looked after in terms of their feeding and housing.

Dairy cows in Vietnam (Photo: Gilles Tran/AFZ)The farmers and stockmen who manage these stock, need feedback from the animals as to how well they are being caring for. In addition to monitoring animal performance, farmers need to develop the skills to better communicate with animals. Communication between animal and human forms the basis of assessing the degree of animal comfort, that is the extent to which the animals are at ease with their physical and psychological environment. If animals are not “at peace” and clearly indicate this state, it is up to humans to modify the animals’ environment to improve their degree of comfort.

The dairy cows of temperate regions are now being farmed worldwide. Accordingly, when stock are housed in the tropics, sheds need to be designed and built to optimise natural ventilation and provide a flooring that is easy to clean yet comfortable to walk and rest on. High roofs and open sides together with gently sloping cement floors and specific cow resting on bedding material or mats are common features in well designed cow sheds.

After breeding to matches with the environment or selecting animals for high levels of production of livestock products of economic value (be it milk, live weight gain and/or fertility), mankind then expects cattle to function in harmony with the resources available. It is only through better understanding and the provision of their needs to “behave” normally, can we hope to develop more profitable and sustainable systems of livestock farming.

The key issues of animal welfare practices of dairy stock on tropical smallholder dairy farms, should clearly highlight those which are likely to adversely affect cow and herd performance. Clearly, cow welfare is closely linked to both performance and profitability of dairy farms, be they smallholder dairy (SHD) or large scale farms.

Poor animal handling is at the root of many welfare problems for dairy cows. Having an empathetic, experienced and knowledgeable herdsperson is the key to minimising handling risks. Perhaps this should be called good “cowpersonship”, to emphasise the importance for every person of understanding each cow, rather than just the herd. It is very important to focus on the variation between individual cows as this highlights the importance of providing for the welfare of all. There is a need for good cow observation skills, but this is often not easy when intensification results in less time being available to spend with each cow. It is no coincidence that in intensive cow units, it is getting harder to repeatedly get the cows pregnant, which requires the cowperson to observe oestrous behaviour in a cow if he or she wants to artificially inseminate the cow. Unfortunately in many developing countries, skilled workers are increasingly hard to find, particularly in situations in which there are competing industries offering higher salaries and better working conditions.

We must always be wary of going down the route of intensification, using cows that are genetically predisposed to give large quantities of milk, as such animals frequently suffer from poor welfare and performance. It is often been said that ‘we breed cows to produce more and more milk at the expense of their welfare’. Intensive housing must be critically reviewed for all its faults in attending to cows’ daily needs, potentially leading to behaviour problems such as aggression, kicking, and stereotyped tongue rolling. Too many potentially high yielding dairy cows have been imported from developed to developing countries, only for farmers to find that the cows lose body condition and have an appetite that is almost impossible to satisfy, with the result that the milk yields are low and the cows barren. Animal health is often at greater risk as stock handlers do not develop the skills to “read” the cow’s changes in behaviour during the early stages of a disease outbreak. Heat stress compounds this welfare insult.

In spite of several decades of dairy farming in the tropical developing countries, the productivity of SHD farming has remained relatively low due in part to the lack of appropriate application of research. Small farmers, due to their low socio-economic and agro-economic conditions cannot readily adopt the available science and technology. Even the most appropriate technology is rarely transferred to smallholders en masse due to a lack of effective support services. There needs to be large scale institutional support to facilitate dairy industry growth through mechanisms such as providers of farmer credit, farmer training centres (which includes capacity building on welfare issues), well equipped milk collection centres, processing and marketing facilities, farmer cooperative or groups and appropriate research and extension infrastructures and methodologies.

Good dairy cattle husbandry for SHD farmers includes the provision of appropriate resources of feed and shelter, effective management and sympathetic stockman ship. These include:

  • Physical resources necessary to ensure proper feeding, housing and hygiene
    • Weather proof feed stores
    • Accommodation that is hygienic, physically and thermally comfortable and unlikely to cause injury.
    • Facilities for routine preventative medicine and the care of individual sick animals, such as a device to constrict the animal to allow for closer inspection
  • Strategic management designed to address the physiological, health and behavioural needs of the animals
    • Feeding, production, health and welfare plans devised and implemented with professional advice as appropriate to the needs of the system and the individual animals. These could be provided by the farmers’ support network such as dairy cooperatives, milk collection centres or feed suppliers.
    • There is need to provide comprehensive yet concise management plans for each and every class of stock on the farm, ranging from new born calves to growing heifers through to breeding bulls and milking cows.
    • Comprehensive record keeping related to feeding, production, health and welfare.
  • Competent stockman ship, sympathetic to the day to day needs of the stock
    • A skilled empathetic approach to animal handling.
    • Early recognition and attention to any signs of disease or injury.
    • Work practices that encourage competent and caring stock keepers and which give them the time to develop empathy with the animals in their care.

A competent, welfare-minded dairy farmer is then one who extends his farming skills to cover cow psychology as well as cow production technology and farm business management. In essence, one should be able to put oneself “inside the cows’ skin” to develop the ability to “think like a cow”. Sustained good animal care is a route to higher animal productivity and higher farm income.

* Profitable Dairy Systems, Kyabram, Victoria, Australia www.profitabledairysystems.com.au, July 2014

Further reading
  • Moran, J. and Doyle, R. (2014). Cow talk. Understanding dairy cow behaviour to improve their welfare on smallholder farms in tropical Asia, CSIRO Publications, Melbourne.
  • FAO (2013). Enhancing animal welfare and farmer income through strategic animal feeding - Some case studies. Edited by Harinder P.S. Makkar. FAO Animal Production and Health Paper No. 175. Rome, Italy. Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/017/i3164e/i3164e00.pdf

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