According to a survey conducted by Dairy Australia in 2013, the average size of Australian dairy herds has risen 37% over the past decade, a trend that looks set to continue with a third of the surveyed famers expecting to calve more cows in the following year. The increased scale of production, the Australian Veterinary Association [AVA] believes, could impact the individual welfare outcomes of the cows.
“Increasing scale of production means larger herd sizes, increased stocking densities, longer milking times, longer walking distances, and reduced ability to examine and treat cows individually,” said Dr David Beggs of the Animal Welfare Science Centre of the University of Melbourne. “These factors have the potential to cause reduced welfare outcomes for dairy cows. But on the other hand, there are management aspects that often improve outcomes with economies of scale. Welfare can be difficult to measure and there’s been little published regarding the welfare outcomes for cows in large Australian dairy herds.
“Larger enterprises are more likely to have modern rotary dairies that reduce milking time. They may also be more likely to have infrastructure to electronically identify, monitor and feed individual cows, they may be more likely to use professional advice and provide superior nutrition, and they may have greater capacity for staff training and general quality assurance systems,” Dr Beggs said.
As part of a PhD looking at welfare outcomes in larger herds, he conducted a survey in 2014 to assess the relationships between herd size and known or proposed risk factors for adverse animal welfare outcomes in Australian dairy herds. “We received responses from 863 (13%) Australian dairy farms representing 260,000 cows with an average herd size of 304 and what we found was that a larger herd size was associated with risk factors for animal welfare concerns in relation to decreased staffing per cow, increased grain feeding (which can lead to lameness and diseases) and increased milking time.
“There was no evidence, however, of an increase in disease, cow contentment levels or other adverse welfare outcomes. More than 95% of farmers believed that their cows were content most of the time. This can probably be explained by larger enterprises having access to better training and education of staff, routine veterinary herd visits, separate milking of the main herd and the sick cows, transition diets before calving and written protocols for treatment of disease.”