What's Welfare to a Cow?

We hear the term animal welfare bandied about in the press, but have you ever considered what welfare is to a cow? Recently at the International Beef Cattle Welfare Symposium, Dr. K.C. Olsen of Kansas State U tackled part of that question.

The cow calf industry hits the animal right's radar less frequently than many other agricultural systems. After all, on average the calves stay with their mothers and run on grass all summer. They fit the idyllic vision that many hold in their mind. However, if we look at the cow calf industry our welfare Issues probably fit into one of the following:

  • Weather /Shelter
  • Nutrition
  • Management Practices
  • Disease Prevention/Treatment
  • Calving Difficulty/Dystocia
  • Old/Injured and Cull Animals

Weather/Shelter is one many folks not familiar with cattle will think of as a necessity. In reality, given the choice, the cow will be outside most of the time. This is so even in the cold of winter as long as she has lots to eat, a good hair coat, and possibly a windbreak.

Nutrition is one we probably need to revisit more often, and question if our calving cycle is in synchrony with our nutrient cycle. Every year is different, and we pay attention in a drought year when the grass is short. However, do we pay attention to the slow subtle changes that happen to the herd over time? We have all heard it repeated many times that you fit the cow to the environment. And we probably did that15 years ago, or when we first started running cows. Or did we just get the cows that everybody else had without thinking about what our land produced? If we had the right amount of feed for the cows back then, what has changed? Many of us have cattle that have drifted up in size over the years. Much of the literature talks about 1200 lb cows, yet the average in Ontario is probably closer to 1500 lbs today. Also, over time we have bred for more milk in our cows -a good thing - as long as we changed the feed available as well.

If we increase the cow weight by 200 lbs, then nutrient requirements for maintenance increase by 20%. If we increase milking potential 10 lbs then nutrient requirements for maintenance increase by 20%.

Dr. Olsen noted we need to match the cows to the resources of the area. In North Dakota in a tough environment, CHAPS data (herd ROP) for 2008 showed cows that were 1200 and under weaned 617lbs, while the 1600+ cows weaned 434lbs. Clearly a case where the larger cows were exceeding the resource base, thus creating a nutrition, perhaps welfare, and definitely a financial issue.

Sometimes that resource/nutrition shortfall shows up in other ways. By selective breeding at the Kansas State University, the beef cows have gone from 1360 lb in 2005 to 1200 lbs in 2010. That is 60,000 lbs less body weight on the same resource base. They are now seeing greater cow longevity as a result of more resources available to the cows, even though they didn't think they were short-changing them before.

Management practices such as castration and dehorning are ones which always generate some controversy. These fall into the bad for good category. Some bad (pain, stress), is necessary for the overall or longer term good (unwanted breeding and horn injuries). Pain mitigation or nerve blockers are some of the technologies that will help us in this area of welfare as their application becomes more practical in the field and as new drugs become approved. In the meantime, the earlier in the calf's life we can do these tasks the less reaction there seems to be from the animal. Vaccination would be another example of bad for good - short term stress and pain being handled for the good of disease prevention.

Calving difficulty or dystocia is an area we all want to avoid, but how much thought do we really put toward it? This is a welfare problem that not only affects the cow but also the calf involved. It also can affect the welfare of the bottom line big time. Cows with hard calvings are slow to breed back, thus reducing your sale weight for next year. For the calf involved there is quite a multitude of possible welfare issues. In a hard calving the calf is more likely to be stillborn and have respiratory problems later in life and stands a greater subsequent chance of death. Much of this may be due to the stress of the hard birth impeding the from calf rising and nursing quickly, and this in turn impedes the calf's ability to get a good passive immunity transfer through the colostrum. Failure of passive immunity transfer meant that those calves would be 3x more likely to be treated in the feedlot for morbidity. Again, this is a welfare issue for the calf and the bottom line of the feedlot. Some of these welfare issues can be moderated by doing a good job PREPARING calves for weaning, unlike the current practices in the industry. Does the calf know how to eat and drink in a yard situation? Can you consider fence line or 2 stage weaning so the calf doesn't have to go through all the stressors of weaning in one fell swoop?

The final area where we owe cattle more welfare is in the end of life or use scenario. Make those decisions well before the animal is in bad shape. Can she walk freely and take the truck ride with no problems. If it is cancer eye move her out as soon as you realize it. It's better for her welfare and again for your bottom line, as you are less likely to have the carcass condemned. If the cow has reached a bad state step up to your responsibility and euthanize her. To quote Dr. Jan Shearer "better to euthanize a week too early than one day late." That will improve the cow's welfare, and the industry's welfare.

So stop and take a look at your farming practices and what the welfare issues may be through the eyes of your cows and through the eyes of your consumers. Are there things you need to consider changing? Luckily, many of those changes may also improve the welfare of your bottom line.

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