Is Intensive Dairy Production Compatible With Animal Welfare?

by Joseph.M. Stookey

Advances in Dairy Technology Vol. 6. Proceedings of the 1994 Western Dairy Canadian Dairy Seminar. pp 209-219.

Dairy cattle


    The obvious intent of a question posed in this manner is to explore the possibility that some aspects of intensive dairy production may be incompatible with good animal welfare. Or, at the very least, the question acknowledges that there may be a perception, by some people, that intensive dairy production impinges upon the animal's welfare. Regardless, both situations require an understanding of what is meant when we use the term "animal welfare". Unfortunately, a concrete scientific definition of animal welfare has never been agreed upon even among scientists working in this area. Much like the term "love", everyone seems to agree animal welfare exists, but the concept defies explanation and there is little agreement on the meaning. Scientists do seem to agree that animal welfare refers to a continuum and not to a simple yes or no end point. Arguments about animal welfare are certain to surface when scientists, veterinarians, producers and the public debate the point at which animal welfare is unacceptable. In the meantime, it is of utmost importance to remember that animal welfare, or an animal's well being, can be improved or made worse depending upon the point at which one begins the comparison and the criteria used. There is no question whether animal welfare or an animal's well being is important, certainly it is to the animal itself. The controversy begins when humans, with varying backgrounds, knowledge, incentives and prejudices, begin discussing what is acceptable or unacceptable animal welfare. Discussions about animal welfare become even more complex because they involve the concerns of animals whose form of communication differs from our own. Perhaps the most useful tool in the art of negotiations or discussions is the ability to listen to and understand each participant's viewpoint. In animal welfare discussions this means taking into consideration views held by ourselves, our critics and our animals.

    When agriculturists become pro-active and speak out against what we feel are unjust criticisms, we often use examples which we think are proof of our concern for our animals. We attempt to convey the message that we are, in fact, the original animal welfare advocates since, throughout our history, we have had animal welfare concerns. I refer to these examples as traditional producer welfare concerns.

    All of these factors are directly related to the welfare of our animals, but it is obvious that all of them have economic importance. To stand behind these concerns as examples of our compassion for our animals will gain us little credibility and, in fact, be viewed as "protectionistic". The momentum gained by the animal rights movement in recent years is further proof that these "producer welfare concerns" are of little interest to our critics. Everyone agrees that we have made tremendous advances in the areas of genetics, nutrition, reproduction and veterinary medicine, but such advances which improve welfare are not the issue. The greatest concerns expressed by our critics are what appears to them as our overall lack of compassion for our animals. Many people are offended by systems which deny the animals the light of day; restrict the freedom of movement; assemble large numbers of animals within a restricted area; subject the animals to routine, painful procedures; push the animals to their biological and metabolic limits; and prevent animals from expressing their normal repertoire of behaviours.

    To answer the question of whether intensive dairy production is compatible with animal welfare we need to consider the welfare concerns not only from the perspective of the producer, but also from that of the general public and, even more importantly, the animal itself. In fact, several scientists suggest that the very important key to understanding acceptable animal welfare lies in understanding the animal's viewpoint and its "feelings" about its environment or conditions in which it lives (Duncan and Petherick, 1989; Webster, 1993). Some have argued that welfare in not compromised unless the animal physiologically or psychologically feels that its welfare is compromised. With this in mind it is worth discussing what the dairy animal may feel about its environment under intensive systems.

Human-Animal Interactions

    The animal's response to its caretaker is an excellent example of the level of fear or comfort an animal "feels" while in the presence of its owner. Albright (1983) believes the best test for cowmanship is whether the cows approach the herdsmen in the pasture (best), or turn away and run as he approaches (worst), or just stand still when he comes closer (neutral). Such responses are not solely dependent upon temperament, which is highly heritable in cattle, but depend also upon handling and previous learning experiences. Most species have a distinct sensitive period shortly after birth, in which socialization to man influences future reactions. Surprisingly, dairy calves handled positively on a routine basis from 0-3 months of age showed the same level of fear as unhandled controls when tested at 15 months of age (Boissy and Bouissou, 1988). It appears that positive handling is required throughout the growing period of the dairy heifer in order to reduce the fear response in the older heifer.

    For years it was suggested that the "contented cow gives more milk". Several researchers reported that the higher producing cows were the most docile. Additional studies showed that personality traits of the dairy producer were correlated to milk production and introverted gentle stockmen had higher producing herds. Recently, however, researchers have shown that the flight distance, i.e., how close a human can approach before a stationary cow moves away, is not correlated to high milk production (Purcell et al., 1988). However, it should be obvious that the greater the level of fear in the dairy cow the more frustration she can cause to the dairy worker because of her constant stepping, kicking and flinching in the milking parlor. Such cows are more likely to be the object of rough handling, particularly by hired labour. A novel approach at reducing the level of fear in milking cows has been successfully demonstrated by Hemsworth and workers (1989) who took advantage of the "sensitive" period which cows themselves undergo following parturition. They found smearing foetal fluids on the hands of the experimenter and extending them towards the cow for her to smell during the first hour following parturition calmed the cow's behaviour during milking for up to 20 weeks of lactation. These findings need additional testing, but it is reasonable to assume that any steps which can be taken to reduce the fear of humans in dairy cattle would be a step toward improving animal welfare in terms of reducing stress and avoiding rough handling by frustrated workers.

    How does intensive dairy production influence the level of fear in the dairy herd and indirectly impact on the animal's welfare? Intensive dairy production will decrease animal welfare if it means an increase in animal numbers per farm to a point that the number of cattle exceed the number that the operation can successfully tame, adequately inspect or positively interact with at the individual level. Intensive operations which hire workers who are untrained in appropriate stockmanship skills and left unsupervised should expect to have cattle that are nervous and fearful in the presence of humans. Canadian researchers, de Passille and coworkers (1993) have found that calves will generalize unpleasant experiences and associate the negative experience with the place of origin and not necessarily discriminate between "good" and "bad" people. Therefore, one abusive part-time worker in the parlor could negatively effect how cows respond to others who handle them at milking. Such a person can exist in a less intensive system. It could even be an overworked irritable owner who is trying to operate a less intensive system. Size of the operation is not the best indicator of good or poor animal welfare. The pleasure and satisfaction the worker or owner feels while in the presence of the animals and the willingness to be around the animals during free time are probably more reliable predictors of the proper actions and attitudes which lead to improved animal welfare.

Separation of cow and calf

    Under natural conditions a cow would bond to her calf immediately after parturition. She would provide maternal care and allow the calf to suckle up until weaning age, which occurs naturally at about 250 days of age. In all our livestock systems we impose a weaning age which deviates substantially from the naturally occurring weaning age. Does the separation of the dairy cow and calf within 24 hours after birth impinge upon their well being? From a nutritional and health viewpoint the calf and cow are adequately cared for following separation in any well managed system, regardless of whether the system is intensive or otherwise. Do the cow and calf feel bad or suffer stress due to the separation? Though the calf is innately programmed to bond and become dependent upon a "mother" the calf is not born equipped with a template that informs it what a "mother" is to look like . The role of mother is easily redirected within 24 hours of birth onto any appropriate surrogate "mother" (or human) which provides nourishment. Calves separated shortly after birth display much less behavioural signs of anxiety such as vocalization, defecation, searching for their mother, loss of appetite, etc. than beef calves weaned at 205 days of age. It appears that the separation during this early critical period is more easily "accepted" by the newborn calf than it is in older calves who are imprinted and dependent upon their mothers. Separation anxiety in the cow follows a similar pattern and is less stressful if done immediately following parturition. In addition, some of the maternal anxiety felt by the cow is diminished by milking. Two separate studies suggest that the cow and calf should be allowed some period of time together (not greater than 24 hours) for some important physiological benefits (Albright, 1983).

  • Colostrum (even when hand fed) is more readily absorbed by a newborn calf in the presence of the cow and uptake is facilitated by the stimulation received through grooming and licking.
  • The incidence of retained foetal membranes is reduced in cows where sucking by the calf was allowed.

  • Feeding Calves

        It is a common practice among dairy producers to train calves to drink from a bucket instead of letting them suck the milk through an artificial teat. From the producers perspective the practice saves time and money because the calves can consume the milk more quickly, and buckets without artificial teats are cheaper and easier to clean. The practice may not be as advantageous to the calf. One of the main reasons for rearing calves in isolation has been to prevent calves from cross-sucking on each other. The need to suckle appears to be highly motivated. Anne Marie de Passille and others (1991) have discovered that calves which were allowed to suck on artificial teats after drinking milk had higher levels of insulin and cholecystokin in (CCK) in their blood. Both of these hormones are important to the calf; insulin aids in the digestion and utilization of milk and CCK is responsible for signalling satiety or "fullness". It is not just the act of suckling which is important, but also the duration. Calves fed through artificial teats with smaller orifices (thereby requiring more time to suck the same amount of milk) show less cross-sucking. Although the behaviour of sucking on non-nutritive objects appears maladaptive to the human observer, and has some negative consequences, the calf instinctively "knows" that the sucking behaviour satisfies a physiological need. Suckling on a cow satisfies both the nutrient requirements and the sucking response. Drinking milk from a bucket only meets the nutrient requirements. If calves are taught to drink milk from a bucket it may be an improvement in welfare to attach an artificial teat to the side of the pen for the calf to use after feeding.

    Rearing heifers

        In 1970 it was reported that heifers reared in social and visual isolation from their herd mates produced significantly more milk than herd mates raised in groups or in stalls with visual and limited physical contact. Not only was the health of calves reared in out door hutches improved over traditional housing, but apparently some positive long term benefits were realized by rearing calves in social and visual isolation. Eighteen years later and with four more studies complete the results remained the same; heifers reared in social and visual isolation produced more milk when they became cows than did heifers reared under the same conditions, but in visual contact with each other. Creel and Albright postulated that the mild stress of neonatal isolation primed the system early to enable the adult cow to better maintain homeostasis when stressed. An extensive study involving 5 Universities and 323 calves reported that even though milk yields for cows reared as calves in isolation averaged more than control cows during a lactation (+70 kg of fat-corrected milk, +65 kg of mature equivalent milk), the differences were not statistically significant (Arave et al., 1992). A second experiment using identical twins did not show an increase in milk yield for the twins reared in social and visual isolation. What is to be made of the contradictory results? The method of raising calves in individual hutches is likely the best method for housing and rearing young calves due to the reduced risks of enzootic pneumonia and calf scours. Adding a further barrier to prevent visual contact between calves is still open for discussion, but we are at least certain the procedure does not have any detrimental effects on future milk yield.

    Bull calves

        The care of bull calves destined for sale to veal producers deserves some mention. Before sale, all calves should be fed colostrum and failure to feed colostrum to male calves violates the recommended codes of practice for the care and handling of dairy cattle. Selling or transporting bull calves before they have the physical strength and nourishment to withstand the ordeal shows an outright lack of compassion. Attempts should be made to arrange for sale of bull calves to a single buyer. Transfer of calves from one sale facility to another should be avoided. Large intensive dairy operation are at an advantage in securing direct sales to buyers since they have a steady and reliable source of bull calves for sale.

    Free stall housing

        From a cow's perspective, two major differences exist between living in a tie stall versus a free stall housing system. Cows in a free stall have 1) greater freedom for movement and exercise, and 2) more opportunity for social interactions. Intensive dairy operations routinely adopt the free stall system not necessarily to improve animal welfare, but primarily to reduce labour. Indirectly, the cow benefits from the freedom of movement and the exercise. However, social interactions are not necessarily always an advantage and they often come with a cost to the animal, particularly if the animal is a lower ranking individual. Low ranking cows are more often displaced at the feed bunk or while in a free stall and are more likely to receive threats and head butts from dominant cows. Cows, like any species, have a distinct social hierarchy and low ranking animals can suffer at-the-hands of the upper class. However, it is not a hard and fast rule that low ranking animals will suffer in the presence of dominant individuals. Dominance is defined as having priority of access to resources. It is an excellent definition, because without competition for some resource (i.e. food, space, mates) we would never see the dominance relationship expressed. As resources become more limiting the competition becomes more intense. This principle becomes very significant in a free stall system. As long as feed, water, and space for eating, standing, walking, and resting is readily available then competition for these resources will be kept to a minimum. Intensive dairy units which utilize free stall housing have greater potential to improve animal welfare over tie stall systems provided the resources are not limited, comfortable stalls are available and footing is secure. Free stall systems are not an improvement in animal welfare if cow numbers exceed stalls by 15%. Free stalls are not an improvement if cubicles are too small for cows to lie down comfortably. Furthermore, welfare is not improved by a free stall housing system if cows are forced to stand in unsheltered conditions or lie in damp, drafty and unclean cubicles. There is no blanket guarantee that animal welfare is improved in intensive systems which utilize free stall housing, but the possibility to improve the welfare above that provided in the tie stall barn certainly exists.

    Potential welfare advantages

        Several features of intensive production are not only compatible with good animal welfare, but they are an improvement compared to previous standards. Intensive operations are much more likely to call upon experts in the fields of financing, engineering, nutrition, reproduction and herd medicine. All of these experts, directly or indirectly, can make significant contributions towards the improvement of the animal's welfare. Intensive operations are more likely to make timely renovations in building design aimed at improving cow comfort. Intensive operations tend to incorporate and utilize state of the art milking machines which are continually being designed to reduce the incidence of intramammary infections. Even futuristic robotic milking has the potential to improve animal welfare by enabling the cow to voluntarily be milked more often and at the most appropriate time.

        Large numbers of animals usually means a producer is better able to group animals according to their requirements. Improved nutrition, less competition and more attention to specific production needs are often the spin offs of grouping animals according to age and lactational status.

    Potential welfare disadvantages

        As a rule, intensive production means larger herd sizes. This can have a down side for the individual animal because the available time by the owner or worker for inspection and attention is less per cow. In larger herd sizes, animals have less sentimental value and become "easier" to dispose of when they develop a problem or drop below a set production level. As the operation becomes more efficient the average life span of cows in the herd drops, because cows are more likely to be culled and replaced by higher producing animals. In a nut shell, the intensive operation becomes less forgiving of an animal's shortcomings.

        There are certain repercussions associated with as an entire industry moving towards intensive production. The emphasis and selection on production output per animal unit pushes the animal to its metabolic limit. Super cows become the norm and not the exception. Super cows not only produce more milk, but they require advanced care and nutrition. The cow herself becomes less forgiving of subtle mistakes in management, environment or nutrition. Factors which would have been trivial to the ancestors of the modern cow now become exaggerated. A modern dairy cow is like an Indy 500 race car; they both represent the ultimate in what they are designed to do. They both require top notch professionals to care and manage them and both suffer major setbacks when human errors occur.

    Welfare issues facing the dairy industry

    Tail docking

        Originally, tail docking dairy cattle was widely adopted in New Zealand where the prevalence of Leptospirosis was high. Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease which means humans as well as animals can contract the disease. Cattle were routinely tail docked to reduce the likelihood of parlor workers from coming in contact with the leptospira organisms which were shed in the urine and present on urine soaked tails. However, epidemiological studies on the prevalence of leptospirosis in dairy workers have never shown tail docking cows reduces the incidence in dairy workers. Precautions which were found to be effective included the wearing of protective clothing and foot wear, covering abrasions and reducing the prevalence of leptospirosis in the herd through vaccination programs. There is also a belief that somatic cell counts are reduced in tail docked cows, but this has not been supported with published scientific results.

        In Canada, it is not known how wide spread the practice of docking tails in dairy cattle is at this time, but the technique is gaining acceptance in the United States. The intent is to provide worker comfort, clean up the cow, remove the potential manure "slinger" or facilitate the ease of milking a cow between her hind legs. Such reasons seem trivial in light of current day welfare concerns focused upon the livestock industries and, in particular, the concerns being raised against routine procedures which inflict pain on our animals. We dehorn cattle to reduce injury and tail dock sheep and swine to reduce the incidence of fly strike and cannibalism, respectively. It can be argued that in these instances the long term welfare implications to the animal offset the short term pain associated with the procedure. The same cannot be said for tail docking a dairy cow. Whose welfare is being improved when we dock the tail of a cow? If the dairy parlor worker is the primary recipient who benefits from the ease of milking a tail docked cow, then the procedure can certainly be questioned on ethical grounds. The procedure would not appear to be "animal" welfare motivated.

        The dairy industry in N. America has survived without tail docking for so long that it is hard to believe that such a procedure should now be necessary. The traditional means of keeping animals clean such as trimming the switch, providing adequate bedding, or frequently cleaning the barn are chores that responsible producers would be willing to accept. The irritation a producer might experience from a manure soaked tail being swished about the parlor should be motivation to clean the barn or trim the switch, but not dock the tails. Renovations in parlor design could include features which temporarily contain the tail during milking and would be far more welfare friendly and less invasive than renovating the cow!

        The dairy industry cannot expect to improve its image in the eyes of the general public by engaging in such a procedure. As Webster (1993) states, "An excellent test of animal welfare is to discover whether the owner can display his animals with pride to any fair-minded observer". Most European countries such as the UK, Germany, Sweden and Norway prohibit tail docking in cattle except in an emergency situation. It would be a grave error to assume this procedure would not attract negative attention. Educating the public to view this procedure as a necessary management tool, I think, would be a losing cause because the practice cannot be justified in terms of animal welfare. Like so many current welfare issues the presence or absence of scientific data might not lessen the controversy surrounding this issue. In fact, scientific evidence might very well cloud this issue.

    Downer cattle

        During 1993 both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives enacted legislation to amend the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921. The act, cited as the "Downed Animal Protection Act", shall make it unlawful for any stockyard owner, market agency, or dealer to buy, sell, give, receive, transfer, market, or hold nonambulatory livestock unless the livestock has been humanely euthanized. In many respects this legislation is aimed specifically at the dairy industry which is estimated to account for 80 - 90% of the downed animals in the market systems. This legislation should be viewed as a stern warning for all livestock industries in North America to correct welfare issues before they reach the attention of legislative bodies. It is a fallacy to think changes will be forced on livestock industries only when the entire public demands changes. The Downed Animal Protection Act is an example of changes which were brought about by a handful of people who were persuasive and just in the eyes of the lawmakers. It is imperative that producers pay particular attention to dry cow management and that they monitor body conditions and avoid metabolic disorders such as milk fever, ketosis, and fatty liver syndrome which can indirectly lead to displaced abomasums. It is equally detrimental to have cows too thin or too fat, since both conditions have the potential of creating a downed animal. Special measures should be taken to prevent cows from coming in contact with slippery surfaces during all phases of the their life. And above all, efforts should be made to arrange for weak and potential downer cattle to be shipped humanely and directly to a slaughter facility.


        There is no dispute that the potential injury to the cattle and to ourselves favours the removal of horns. The controversy arises on how and when to dehorn. The most "welfare friendly" solution would be to use polled sires. It would eliminate the questions of how and when to dehorn and it would cause the least amount of pain to the animal. Unfortunately, polled sires are not readily available. Furthermore, dairy bulls carrying the polled gene lag behind horned sires in production traits. The dairy producers and AI centres appear to be forever stuck holding the door for each other, waiting for the other to enter the polled gene market place first. Producers will not use a polled sire until it can match the production traits of the horned bull and the AI centres will not put selection pressure or emphasis on polled lines unless there is a demand for polled bulls. Unless there is a concerted effort by both the dairy producers and the sire companies the situation will not correct itself.

        In the meantime, I believe that when the cattle are dehorned carries a more significant impact on the welfare of the animal than which removal technique is employed. Cattle dehorned at the feedlot on arrival suffer a setback detected up to 106 days post dehorning when compared to cattle arriving at the feedlot without horns. However, dairy calves dehorned at 8 weeks of age did not differ in gain from their horned counterparts by 12 weeks of age. It is difficult to measure if pain is less on younger animals, but the time to heal is certainly quicker. All evidence indicates that the procedures are less stressful to the animal the younger it is at the time of application. I would encourage dehorning within the first week following birth. Producers should adopt a dehorning technique which they are comfortable and successful at performing and avoid any technique which requires repeat application or additional attention. The use of local anesthetics when dehorning calves has previously been recommended as an acceptable means of improving animal welfare (Fox, 1983).


        I hope it is clear that intensive dairy production is an improvement in animal welfare if good management principles are employed and if attitudes surrounding welfare issues are progressive and open-minded. It should also be clear that there is much potential for poor welfare if management is poor. Because animal welfare is a continuum, it is difficult to draw a definite line between acceptable and unacceptable levels. Regardless, we should continue to utilize the current information and take steps towards improving animal welfare and move away from practices which compromise an animal's well being.


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    de Passille, A. M. B., J. Rushen and J. Ladewig. (1993) Can calves discriminate between humans based on previous experience? (Abstr .) 30th Annual Meetingof the Animal Behavior Society. University of California, Davis.

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    Webster, A. J. F. (1993) The Challenge of Animal Welfare. In: World Conference on Ani mal Production. Edmonton, Alberta. pp. 513-524.

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