Vet blows whistle on animal welfare (Rural News, December 2009)

A dairy vet is voicing concern about cow welfare in New Zealand, his role in the dairy production system and the role of vets servicing the industry.

Greg McNeil, a New Zealand Veterinary Association board member and practitioner at VetEnt, Te Awamutu, says the “massive growth and transformation” of the dairy industry in recent years “has not been matched by the required growth in management skills and supporting infrastructure and, in many cases, extra feed supply to match feed demand” (Rural News, December 2009).

Listing industry changes (farming marginal areas, breeding for more milk than in previous generations, and larger cows more intensively farmed and forced to calve earlier) McNeil says the cow “has become a victim and her welfare is at risk”.

He poses the question: what is animal welfare with respect to the dairy cow?

“Here’s my take: there is a pain-and-suffering angle and a malicious act; both of these are well understood.

“But what about allowing the cow to carry out normal behaviour and meet her physiological demands – ready access to food, water, shelter, shade, getting in calf and producing enough milk to feed a calf? This is less clear-cut, but is just as important with respect to the welfare codes and standards that operate within the dairy industry.

“We dairy vets will have spent the last few weeks treating non-cycling cows, a farm system problem. Many of these cows pose animal-welfare risks; in fact many are animal welfare victims in their own right.”

McNeil says DairyNZ classifies a cow under 3.0 BCS as emaciated. Then he cites the draft Code of Welfare (Dairy Cattle):

“Minimum standard – 4.1. When the BCS of any animal falls below 3 (on a scale 1-10) urgent remedial action must be taken to improve condition. When the BCS drops below specified levels (see also section 4.1 above) remedial action may involve veterinary attention, improved nutrition or husbandry practice changes.”

McNeil asks, “Does putting a progesterone device in these cows meet the requirements of veterinary attention, improved nutrition or husbandry practice changes? I doubt it.

“It is my opinion that vets and the greater dairy industry have become conditioned to thin, emaciated cows to the point where what we see becomes normalised. This does not make it right, far from it. Many of these thin cows do not demonstrate normal behaviour, especially when certain external factors are overlaid.

McNeil voices four specific concerns about vets in the dairy industry:

  1. Do we really know what a cow in BCS3 or less looks like? If we are like many other rural professionals working with farmers, we are probably over-scoring cows by around 0.7-1.0 BCS units.
  2. Do we really know what normal behaviour of a healthy cow should look like?
  3. Do we know the minimum standards we should be using to assess cow welfare?
  4. If you can confidently answer ‘yes’ to 1-3 and you identify welfare issues, do we have the guts to bring it to the attention of the farmer, try to help them manage their way through it and, if they refuse, notify MAF officials?

“I doubt it,” McNeil says. “We have the conflict of commercialism and client relationships to worry about. So if it can’t reply on the veterinary profession, who can the cow rely on to be the guardian of its welfare?

“One vet ‘dobbing in’ a non-compliant client would [risk being] crucified by their entire client base, the farming community and maybe their employer. But if the entire profession lifted its game and was prepared to enforce the codes and standards that exist in the dairy industry (and our own Code of Professional Conduct) we may finally get the respect we deserve.

“Why should we be forced to breach legislation, our ethics and values for the economic gain of our farming friends? Welfare must come before economics, not after.”

McNeil says body condition is a fundamental outcome of the farming system. Thin cows need urgent remedial action which could or should include some or all of the following: a BCS identification process; veterinary attention; extra feed and change in husbandry such as changing milking frequency; and separation.

“How many thin cows do we see receiving this level of active care? Managing cows to be just above the minimum standard of 3.0 is not acceptable either. The aim must be to have cows at or around industry targets at calving, otherwise the welfare risks will reappear in the subsequent spring.

“Cow health or lack of it, also poses significant welfare concerns. Most cows are recoverable with appropriate care but how often do we consider whether that level of care is able to be delivered reliably? How often do we consider, and how well can we economically manage, the level of pain and suffering severely diseased cows go through during recovery?

“We have an ethical responsibility to ensure suffering is managed; if we can’t ensure this, then humane destruction is warranted. Putting cows in poor welfare situations cannot be justified on economic grounds.”

Opportunity to raise the bar

Animal health and welfare risk being compromised by issues such as farmer attitudes and ability, feed supply, farm infrastructure, and environmental and climate conditions, VetEnt Te Awamutu vet Greg McNeil says.

Setting and enforcing the standards and welfare codes are MAF, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority.

McNeil describes his recent experience with these organisations as “first class”.

“Enforcement is not a sexy business but a balanced, objective, systematic and patient approach gives the best possible chance of removing the animal welfare risks in a proactive manner.

“The veterinary profession must change its attitude towards animal welfare. I have made that change, and I am no animal welfare activist, far from it. In fact, prior to October 2009 I ignored certain aspects of welfare or was naïve about its real meaning.

“We now have the ideal opportunity to lift the bar to the point where minimum standards are at least being met.

“The entire dairy industry also has an opportunity to improve the level of dairy farm welfare. If this opportunity is to be realised, it will require a well-coordinated approach by all stakeholders and an acknowledgement that welfare is an industry-wide issue.”  

By Neil Keating, Rural News (New Zealand)

(Rural News, Dec 2009 - Source: Vetscript 2009)