UW-Extension hosted its annual conference on dairy handling and well-being on March 19 in Platteville. I attended on behalf of Wisconsin Farm Bureau since the organization was a sponsor of the event.
The conference organizers’ goals were to:
- Increase knowledge or understanding of improved dairy and beef cattle animal handling practices.
- Expand awareness and improve understanding about the science and politics of farm animal care here in the upper Midwest, throughout the U.S. and around the world.
- Build new or existing partnerships between dairy and beef producers, veterinarians, related agencies and organizations to address the emerging agriculture policy issue of animal welfare in Wisconsin.
- Identify and connect key individuals interested in addressing future educational/policy efforts related to animal care or welfare.
Speakers during the event included Jennifer Van Os, UW-Madison; Sandy Stuttgen, UW-Extension; and Heather Schlesser, UW-Extension. I’ve including some of the takeaways from each speaker.
Jennifer Van Os
Van Os talked about group housing of pre-weaned calves and mentioned that social calf housing is used extensively in Europe and predicts that the U.S. will recognize the benefits and will transition to social calf housing in the near future.
“There are more than a dozen studies demonstrating that social housing, tested on groups of two to six calves, translates into better performance than for individually reared calves,” said Van Os. “A study by Joao Costa and colleagues, published in the Journal of Dairy Science involved calves that were paired at the end of Week 1 of life, and late pairing at Week 6, or as they were starting to be weaned.”
Van Os summarized the results and reviewed other studies that supported social calf housing. Nine studies found advantages when grouping the calves within 0 to 10 days of birth on average, although in one study the range was 2 to 17 days. Three studies grouped calves after 4 weeks of age and still found advantages; however, another study showed that early (Week 1) versus later (Week 6) pairing also has advantages for cognitive development.
“These are additional arguments in favor of grouping earlier,” said Van Os.
Van Os is working with graduate students including Rekia Salter. Salter’s research focuses on evaluating manual feeding strategies to reduce cross sucking among calves housed in paired hutches.
“The outcomes of this study will help provide guidance to producers on strategies to mitigate cross sucking in a social housing system with manual feeding, such as in paired outdoor hutches,” added Van Os.
Graduate student Kim Reuscher’s research examines the interactions between social housing and thermal comfort of calves. Calves housed with a social companion in a hutch system have a more complex environment than those housed in a calf barn.
“There is more exposure to environmental extremes of heat and cold, and calves can choose to either be inside the same hutch together or in separate spaces,” said Van Os. “In the winter, we hypothesize that calves choosing to share a hutch may have the benefit of keeping each other warm and reducing cold stress, which young calves are especially vulnerable to experiencing. In the summer, however, heat stress may be exacerbated when calves choose to share a hutch.”
Van Os added that the findings from these studies will provide information on the potential benefits of social housing for mitigating cold stress in the winter, the benefits of ventilating hutches to improve thermal comfort in the summer and how social housing affects bedding management in hutches.
“Our group’s research is about the animal itself and understanding the needs of a particular species – not just responding to consumer concerns,” said Van Os. “If we make changes in animal care that result in improvements for animal welfare, this can lead to multiple wins such as performance gains, as in the case of social rearing of calves, and yes, sometimes improvements in public perception as well.”
Stuttgen discussed understanding normal to identify abnormal. She highlighted the three key factors in understanding normal behavior:
- Education about what is normal behavior, especially as research continues to help us define what is truly normal, versus what we assume to be normal.
- Housing and handling cattle in facilities, including pastures, that physically allow them to express normal behavior or ‘let cows be cows.’
- Emotionally and physically supporting the people who work around cattle so they may be open to seeing and responding to the behaviors being exhibited by cattle. A safe place to work, enjoyable, adequate wages, good benefits, treated fairly, opinions valued and more.
Stuttgen predicts that this will change in the next five to 10 years as our non-farming populations continues to outpace the farming one.
“There will be a shortage of people who understand cattle behavior or even care about it,” said Stuttgen. “It will make finding skilled cattlepersons harder, especially as educational budgets tighten. It may not be perceived as a ‘cool’ profession, so university and technical departments will drop ag curriculum as they experience declining enrollment in these classes, which we are already seeing within the technical farm management programs.”
These classes of critters are very different.
“Cattle are not pets,” said Stuttgen. “Cattlepersons care about cattle, but not in the same way ‘fur parents’ care about their pets. And while I think the consuming non-farming public cares that cattle are treated humanely, I also believe they don’t really want to be bothered by the details.”
Stuttgen predicts that there will continue to be demands for change placed on farm managers and owners.
“This may very well improve the welfare of their cattle,” said Stuttgen. “But, we must be mindful and supportive of the farmer’s emotional and financial stress involved with those changes. Research and technology will continue to allow for better facilities so cattle will be better able to simply be cattle as long as farmers can continue to invest in the technology that is supported by consumers, their lenders, and the national and global economy.”
Stuttgen also discussed dehorning and pain mitigation.
“Removing horns from dairy cattle is an important farm safety practice because it prevents injuries to people and cattle,” said Stuttgen. “Removal of the horn or horn bud is a painful procedure and can be minimized by disbudding or dehorning cattle at a young age with proper pain management, ideally prior to six weeks of age.”
Schlesser focused on technology benefits to animal health and reviewed robotic milking machines, brushes, calf auto feeders, automatic-feed pushers and automatic-cattle feeders.
“There is not a one size fits all solution for each farm,” said Schlesser. “What a farmer adds is going to be specific to their operation. Each technology including the feeding system, or milking system, is going to change the labor situation and management on the farm.”
For example, Schlesser explained that the low hanging fruit so to speak in terms of benefits and cost are brushes.
“These are only practical if the animals are not in a stall barn,” said Schlesser. “Before a farmer looks at adapting any technology they need to think through their situation and what they are looking to change about their operation. If they ship their calves to someone else to raise then a calf feeder is not going to benefit them; however, if they want to maximize the amount of milk a cow produces and they are not interested in hiring more labor to milk more times a day then an automatic milking machine would be beneficial.”
Schlesser also added that it seems that the technology that is implemented largely surrounds the amount of labor the farm can get and the times of day the farm can get the labor.
“If dairy farmers are having a hard time getting laborers to do the third milking shift then they may consider putting in the automatic milking machine,” said Schlesser. “If raising calves is really important to them and they can’t get someone to feed the calves as often as they want then they look to putting in an automatic calf feeder.”
The Animal Well-Being Conference speakers always have great takeaways for famers and those in the agriculture industry.
Marian Viney is the communications specialist with Wisconsin Farm Bureau. She is an active member of her community serving in a variety of roles on the school board, within her church and other organizations. Marian and her husband Doug live in Belleville and are the proud parents of three sons, Matthew, Michael and Benjamin.