VEGA News Item

Life Expectancy of the Dairy Cow - 20/06/2007
VEGA's comments to the FAWC consultation FAWC Opinion on the Life Expectancy of the Dairy Cow.

VEGA's comments to the FAWC consultation
FAWC Opinion on the Life Expectancy of the Dairy Cow

Consultation letter First Page and Second Page

1. The life expectancy of the dairy cow (and other milch animals) is a serious issue, entailing rigorous applications of the 5 Freedoms test.

2. Important factors govern the cow’s prospects of a fulfilled life span. We review on our website some comparisons with the Chillingham herd to indicate the extent to which domestication and exploitation have disrupted the natural life of the cow and her relationships with other members of the herd and family. Outstanding factors are:

2.1 Demands of the market and of the consumer/customer and of the merchants and farmers whose businesses, investments and staff are affected by the CAP and by environmental and health issues (for humans). The cow’s place in the dairy/beef/job – in contrast to many of the workings of closed suckler beef herds – and her failings to meet all the fluctuating demands for low fat liquid milks and by-products and co-products subject her to the unnatural stresses and breakdowns as an ill-adjusted machine in a relentlessly-driven production industry. We cite the experiences of the Finnish South Karelia Project launched, like our own Green Plan for farming, food, health and land, in the 1970s and being continued still. The modern British cow breaks down exhausted after few calvings and lactations and high yields of milk and is replaced. The overstressed dairy-herd and badly fed and maintained cows were the source of BSE and its persistence and of the consequent culling on an appalling scale. This illustration of ruthless exploitation, bad husbandry, and the workings of evil and heavily subsidized farming prostituted to satisfy the market’s greed for cheap food points the blame on a nation that inflicts the cost on the dairy-cow and her foreshortened prospects of a full life. Market variations may actually see cattle in calf going through markets for slaughter.

2.2 Disease accounts for an enormous threat to the cow’s wellbeing from the development her immune system to her final breakdown with “production disease” of one sort or another, of which mastitis, lameness, and reproductive failure are highly significant and apparent in various forms for early slaughter (for the chancy market for cow-beef) or culling. Or the potential dairy calf may not be wanted when the market is low, so it is killed with barely a suck from its mother or destined for an early death in the baby-beef market, probably with the stresses of transport (and even death on arrival). Deficiency in colostrum is a major contributor to ill fate for calves struggling to survive the threats in dairying. The market price of the calf and its frailty count heavily in the treatment it receives early in life and its prospects of a long life. Some specific examples of trouble are

2.2.1 Reproduction diseases include difficulties in calving (dystokia), metritis, and retained cleansings, as well as failure to return to service.

2.2.2 Nutritional and metabolic failures account for substantial risks to the cow’s health, loss of production, and collapse (downer cow syndrome) and risks of fracture and gangrene – the commercial dairy cow does not enjoy the ministrations of a veterinary nurse. Despatch means a lorry to the slaughterhouse or knacker’s yard rather than an ambulance to the RSPCA’s veterinary hospital with Rolf Harris armed with sympathy and painkillers at reception as he pours himself a restorative cup of tea. Milk fever, staggers and foggage fever are common manifestations of feeding failures and nutritional deficiencies (generally of calcium and magnesium), with musculoskeletal disorders, including fractures, arthritis, and lameness, a likely consequence and cause for disturbed feeding, inappetence, and loss of production, and thus early despatch “down the road”. Just as humans succumb to “the metabolic syndrome” cows out of condition fall victim to ketosis and fatty liver. Lack of exercise aggravates the sickness likewise.

2.2.3 Intense methods of production and the ills of the dairy/beef/veal industry reduce the hours of competent stockmanship devoted to each cow individually and to the upkeep of the farm and its environs. Loafing areas may be uncongenial; hedges, and fences, are uncared for, so that escapes of animals and risks of injury are likely to occur. Paths and access to pastures may be “poached” or of a surface likely to cause foot troubles and thus lameness. Space at the trough may inhibit good nutrition in the lower members of the bunt order and litter and certain plants and weeds (rhododendrons, yews, ragwort etc) may interest incautious cows and lead to their hasty removal and that of their output from the food chain. Discarded plastic, machinery, and accumulators can likewise cause harm or poisoning, with similar outcomes. Tire-wire disease, indigestion, and severe drop in production due to decomposition of old tires on farm and in use to secure plastic covers on silage clamps are further risks that contribute to the cow’s early demise.

2.2.4 Design and care of pastures and mangers and troughs (and the feed and water therein) are needed to prevent the spread of diseases from commensal animals, flies, lice and ticks, as well as bacteria and viruses. Bedding, cubicles, strawyards, loafing areas, pastures and zerograzing systems pose various risks of infection, infestation, and injury that reduce the cow’s performance and chances of survival. Management of such hazards – in fact, good husbandry – should reduce the harm. Associations with other animals, including sheep, deer, dogs, rats, parasites, and badgers can cause annoyances, bites, and infections and spread of diseases, especially when stock are moved. Present challenges and threats, e.g. with TB, avian flu and blue tongue virus, and summer mastitis, and Johne’s disease illustrate some of the risks to the cow. The heavy and ungainly cow with a dropped udder, possibly used for fostering or using flushed-out milk contaminated with antibiotics, can suffer appreciably from wounding and trampled teats in ill-designed cubicles, and surgical procedures such as injections and cesarians can result in abscessation, reinfection and adhesions (and cesarians may be repeated, especially when misalliances, planned or not, result in oversized fetuses). Eartags to indicate origins and courses of immunizations can be badly inserted, causing bleeding and risks of infection and sepsis; and the tags may be torn out with further injury. Marketing malpractices such as selling cows with udders grossly overstocked add to the animals’ burden of stress and compromised resistance to disease.

3. Professor Broom and Dr Esslemont have always been helpful in our enquiries and Professor Webster is a highly informative ex-member of FAWC. Databases of the Farmers Weekly and Veterinary Record (as well as ours) are of easy access and Google searches on the Net would yield plenty of information. DEFRA publishes many relevant codes and guides intended mainly for farmers.

4. Our answers to Q2 cover this point. Methods of mass killing must give cause for concern. Epidemic diseases such as foot-and-mouth and BSE illustrate problems of this kind. Urgent research is needed for improvements in agronomy, husbandry, and immunization to reduce the resort to any method of slaughter, especially when the victim should be kept in good condition. Culling is a form of killing that obliterates the concepts of the 5 Freedoms.

5. The price of milk and the expectations of subsidies and single farm payments affect the value of the dairy cow and the treatment she (and her progeny) receive. Dr Esslemont has publicised criticisms of farmers on this matter. The consumer expects too much for “cheap” food. It is a rough rule that the higher an animal’s price in the market, the better it will be treated. Barren cows on the way to the slaughterhouse don’t travel as comfortably as a horse conveyed to a meet of the local hunt.

6. The trend to larger dairy farms and the corollaries in high yields, robotic milking or three milkings a day, zero-grazing (and therefore increasing reliance on concentrates), and management in feedlot style can work as well with animals bred and kept for superperformance and stockmanship and isolated from environmental risks of zoonotic disease. However, when factory cows go wrong with, say, viral diseases they go wrong in a big way. Movements of cows and human personnel must observe HACCP-style precautions on the “factory floor.” Such systems would depend on frequent turnovers of stock on an all-in, all-out basis, the spent cows being destined for the trade in forequarter meat for manufacturing purposes, which would be in competition (eg in the burger industry) with cheap imports of South American free range and feedlot beef. The systems are ruthless and zero-grazed is hardly an appealing description in the UK, where delusions of the traditional dual-purpose breeds (with each cow given a name) persist. However, organic farmers are going in this direction, abandoning the low-input systems with yields almost from grass alone running at output about half those achieved by intensification. It is difficult at this stage to rate or score the systems with welfare rather than hygiene as a measure and with regard to the environment. A great deal of assessment depends on ratings of wellbeing, management of the separation of cow and her calf and age of weaning in animals bred and reared to athletic standards. The customer needs to appreciate the meanness in denying the calf the portion of its mother’s milk and the availability of methods of turning crops and even grass in gleaming stainless steel vats into “dairy” products rather than stuffing then into miserable mothers with scant chance of exercise and interesting foraging and space and shelter to cud in.

7. As a cow is an archetypal female and in maternal predicament it is sad to read welfarists writing of her as “it”. Artificial insemination has already allowed genetic tricks that have gone wrong and generated freaks as well as many calves sired by a single bull. The manipulations are likely to be devoted to production traits rather than longevity, although some aspects of wellbeing may be connected with outputs, eg arrangement of teats for mechanical and automatic milking and the strengths of feet, legs, and udders to withstand the wear and tear in a short life. Specific benefits may yield milk for advantages to human milksops and for devices to adjust the calving to milk outputs, eg by extended periods of lactation. The modern dairy cow is remarkable in supporting concurrent gestation and lactation over 6 months of the year and for yielding milk copiously off her back for a few weeks while she is empty after calving. Further she has been put in calf while as a heifer she is still growing herself.

8. Retailers and processors should ensure traceability and provenance to satisfy the ethical shopper. The contents of the bulk tank are more difficult to describe and label than, say, the output of a single orchard or a farm growing fruit and veg.

9. The veterinary profession must play a major role in representing the cow’s interests in pursuance of their avowed duty of care and demonstration of her wellbeing. Although such protestations may be legally questionable, common understanding would take the vows to mean representing her welfare first in any clash with the practices of a keeper, owner, custodian, or exploiter. The profession has been found wanting in some respects: thinning of the cover of vets’ practices dealing with farm animals and the drift towards the less arduous (and more lucrative) care of pets and companion animals, together with the maintenance of 24-hour call in farming and rural areas, have reduced professional attentions to the cow. British vets also don’t like slaughterhouse duties and responsibilities for hygiene and welfare there which are increasingly undertaken by foreign vets trained with greater emphasis on meat inspection. Routine measures for immunizations at least allow vets’ entry to farms and to report on bad practice, but these opportunities for independent surveillance may be lost as changes in the State Veterinary Service take effect. The vet’s intervention is very important in decisions on fitness to travel (for instance, to a slaughterhouse) or loss of profit to the farmer (and slaughterhouse) if the casualty has to be killed on site and the carcase and organs be expensively disposed of with reference to the costs of obeying regulations on knacker’s meat and landfill.

10. Current assurance schemes do not adequately assess the welfare of the dairy cow: they cannot police and enforce regulations and observances during the seasons and changes in the calving cycle. However, some chronicling of veterinary treatments, morbidities, and mortalities is possible and informative. It should be augmented with records of yields and analyses and feedstuffs that should be available to assurers and the public. Treatments of pastures and soil analyses should be recorded.

11. Records of lameness, mastitis, and infertility should be kept, albeit with some allowance for the severity and nature of the affliction on a herd basis and on the details for each cow year by year. These are production diseases that indicate overworking of the animals and faulty husbandry. Incidences and prevalence should be recorded from a datum point and assessed by variations that may lead to remedial action. The general trend should be downward (after allowance is made for changes in population). The information should lead to clues on needed precautions such as quarantining of bought-in livestock and in bedding, buildings, and surfaces and removal of slurries and assessments of muck on the animals and in passageways and loafing areas.

12. Accommodation of the 5 Freedoms in British commercial practice is poor on all counts. Stress and distress and acute and chronic pain are inadequately appreciated and respect for the animals’ instincts and behaviour are routinely violated. The contrast with conditions in Chillingham herd indicates some of the breaches of the 5 Freedoms, with little compensation resulting from domestication and farming practice.

13. Training of farm workers is inadequate, especially as many experienced hands and farmers are quitting the industry being replaced by unskilled workers with little care for the animals and with little time for individual attention. The status of animal handlers must be raised with consequent requirements for training, licensing, and eligibility for CPD. This entails assertion of control without kicks, sticks, or goads and without bruising or other injury by rough handling, closing of gates and loading and unloading of vehicles.

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