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Research and the development of skilled stockpeople are vital to high welfare dairy farming, say Harper Adams livestock experts

Posted 21 February

A herd of dairy cows in a field.

A group of Harper Adams University researchers and lecturers have responded to recent television coverage regarding UK dairy farming – encouraging viewers to look beyond a single example.

The Harper Adams University Dairy Science Team write:

"Dairy farmers in the UK are dedicated to producing a high-quality nutritious product while maintaining the highest standards of animal welfare in the world.

"Sadly, the Panorama programme that aired recently showed undercover footage from a dairy farm that represented entirely unacceptable and reprehensible behaviour. Dairy farmers have a moral responsibility to care for their animals – not as pets, but as livestock that should be respected and managed such that they are well-fed, housed in a comfortable environment which allows the ability to express natural behaviour and they are free from pain, discomfort and disease. It is important to note that the abuse shown in the Panorama programme is not seen in a well-managed dairy farm and is very much the exception to the high standards of care typically encountered on UK dairy farms.

"Dairy farm practices must be science and evidence-based in order to optimise animal health, welfare, nutrition and productivity. For example, the Healthy Cow genetic selection index developed by AHDB allows all UK dairy farmers to breed their cows to improve key health and welfare traits. This has been proven to reduce the incidence of lameness and reduce the number of cows leaving the herd due to ill health. The increased use of technologies such as pedometers (akin to “Fitbits” for cows) also allows farm workers to monitor lameness and fertility in their cows.  This facilitates earlier veterinary treatments or management changes, reducing cow discomfort and improving health and welfare. Research at Harper Adams University has also shown that these aids can result in earlier detection of diseases such as Johnes, thereby reducing disease spread.

"Dairy farmers know that providing a nutritious, well-balanced, high-quality ration to their cattle is central to cow health and welfare, and also farm profitability. Research at Harper Adams University has focussed on means to improve the utilisation of home-grown forages for dairy cows to improve cow health and reduce their impact on the environment, as well as enhance milk quality. It is clear that high-quality nutrition, cow health and welfare, will not only protect the environment through reducing on-farm emissions of carbon and nitrogen per unit of product produced (litre of milk) but will also improve the economics of the business through a higher yield per unit input – which is the definition of a sustainable farm and agri-food system. Sustainability (environment, economic and social) is therefore built on a firm bedrock of animal health and welfare.

"Dairy cows and their calves are generally separated within the first 12 to 24 hours of life. This is done to reduce the spread of disease from cows to calf and to ensure that the calf receives sufficient of the important colostrum feeds in early life. The calf is then fed well-balanced nutritious milk feeds alongside concentrate and forage, to meet its requirements for growth and development. Besides research to optimise the early life nutrition, health and welfare of a dairy calf separated from its dam, Harper Adams University is also investigating the health, welfare and growth of dairy calves reared with cows.

"Ultimately however, excellent dairy farming depends on cattle being cared for by skilled stockpeople. Animal-based courses at Harper Adams University have core elements on animal nutrition, management, health and welfare. On-going assessment of competence, training and refresher courses is also a key component of the Red Tractor Assurance scheme for dairy farms, with many milk processors / buyers applying even higher standards. The behaviours shown in the Panorama programme do not reflect these standards, do not reflect practice on UK dairy farms and should not be condoned."

The team comprises Dr Emma Bleach; Professor Jude Capper; Professor Michael Lee; Professor Mark Rutter and Professor Liam Sinclair.

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