Welfare: a flawed situation - Veterinary Practice
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Welfare: a flawed situation

RICHARD GARD reports on the winter meeting of the BCVA where welfare issues were discussed.

THE BCVA winter meeting addressed welfare. In his opening remarks, the chairman, BCVA president Keith Cutler, reminded everyone of the veterinary oath: “my constant endeavour will be to ensure the welfare of animals in my care”.

There are recorded 30,000 calving problems each year, 34,000 downer cows, one third of cattle are lame, 20 to 30% of cows are culled for infertility, the target of 30 cases of mastitis per 100 cows is not universally achieved, BVD and Johne’s are endemic with one third to a half of herds infected and large numbers of calves are being lost to scour and pneumonia.

So the question was put by Keith: “Are vets doing a good enough job?” Disease within herds is being missed. Veterinary surgeons in dairy and beef practice need to “stand up for the welfare of the animals of clients”.

A range of specialist speakers from across the agricultural spectrum had been lined up to challenge and enthuse the delegates. If the comments over the tea and coffee were anything to go by there was no doubt that more needed to be done.

Karen Lancaster (DairyCo) questioned whether the dairy cow was being pushed too far. She pointed out that the modern dairy cow is capable of exceptional yields, is a large, lean beast that requires a high level of management to function correctly. Genetics has raced ahead of management.

The health issues are recognised within the industry and there are “excellent initiatives” with experience and management tools available. Measurements of welfare have been long debated because culling measures depend on the availability of replacements, so longevity may not be an accurate indication of welfare.

Mastitis is being addressed and 120 vets have been trained to operate the DairyCo mastitis control plan with 250 herd plans in place (www. mastitiscontrolplan .co.uk). An interactive CD ROM is available on Housing the 21st century cow and bull profiles are available for the first time that have comparison ratios between breeds from UK daughter information.

Some farms have good day-to-day welfare outcomes and the question is raised whether these should be incentivised. The aim is to ensure that the dairy cow has a life worth living.

Switching the emphasis to beef cattle, Duncan Pullar (English Beef & Lamb Executive), pointed out that the top half of the best third of beef farmers make a profit. In this situation, investing in better systems is difficult but the discussion of better handling facilities was of considerable interest.

Positive development

Most vets would consider that poor handling facilities detract from their ability to examine animals thoroughly. The installation of new systems in the UK, based on the work of Temple Grandin, is a positive development.

It is important to have solid sides, so that the animal cannot see over the top, with a curved forcing pen and race. Any veterinary surgeons with direct experience of these installations may care to pass on their observations.

The margin per suckler cow drops away after six calvings and becomes negative after eight. As the cows age, the number that do not get pregnant falls and the farmer has a 50:50 chance of predicting pregnancy. There are always exceptions with very old cows doing well but, for a herd, the margin increases with more culling.

Decent crush

Increasing birth weight reduces the ease of calving and genetic selection of cattle with good growth weights and ease of calving is developing.

In discussion, emphasis was placed on the benefits for sampling and disease control of a decent crush. If cows are pregnancy diagnosed at the start of the winter, the farmer can manage the pregnant and non pregnant to best advantage before starting on expensive feed.

Catherine McLaughlin (NFU) outlined some of the confusion arising from various sources regarding the standards for the welfare of calves. There are differences, for example, in the advice to farmers about feeding colostrum.

Are dairy calves and beef calves to be treated differently? DEFRA advises 1.5 litres per feed whereas DairyCo indicates 10% of body weight, and suckling periods range from 10 to 20 minutes. In general, it is intended for all EU countries to have the same welfare standards. Farm health planning could become a monitoring system for cattle health.

In discussion, it was pointed out that farmers do not want to work to low standards but that a scheme is required that all agencies support. There was comment that consumers need to recognise products produced from countries with low welfare standards.

The president declared that one of the current aims of the BCVA is to get people talking together and have a united front on welfare.

It was pointed out that Temple Grandin has declared that she had more impact on welfare in 18 months as an inspector for MacDonald’s than in the previous 20 years.

The question was raised by Richard Cooper (Evidence Based Veterinary Consultancy) as to whether welfare problems can be improved through nutrition. The Telos model was introduced, where welfare is synonymous with an animal’s nature. Dietary energy deficit is recognised in humans as leading to feelings of tiredness and low esteem with related adverse health effects.

Diseases of the transition cow are linked to the immune function being compromised with consequent metabolic diseases. Water is considered to be the “forgotten nutrient”. Metabolic diseases are “gateway diseases” and their prevention is essential and nutrition should be considered when developing interventions to improve animal welfare.

An in-depth account of the function of the milking machine and its effect on quality milk production and dairy cow welfare was presented by John Baines (Fullwood).

The role of the machine in new intramammary infections is increased with rough take-off of the cluster, compared to gentle take-off. And so evaluation of the use of the machine is relevant as well as maintenance. Choice of liner is important for the size of teats within the herd but the compromise is to choose a liner that suits the younger animals.

Reduce contamination

It is important to reduce the environmental contamination of the teats before clusters are attached and clearly herds with high levels of infection will be affected more by inadequate machine use. Teat end and teat barrel condition have been recognised for decades as relevant to the transfer of infection and udder welfare.

Nick Bell (University of Bristol) had some trouble with pieces of video to explain the various states of lameness and for the delegates to interact by selecting choices remotely. As a cow walks across the yard, which limb is affected?

Some mobility observations are easier than others and the grading system is becoming well known with most agreeing on 0s at the healthy feet end and 3s at the unhealthy but 1s and 2s cause the most debate. The relevance is when to take action as the 1s and 2s will benefit from treatment. The National Mastitis Conference on 14th April will explore the issues in depth.

DVD on mobility

A mobility DVD is available to test observational skills (www.dairyco.org.uk) and the Zinpro lesion chart can be obtained from www.cattlelameness.org.uk.

The welfare issues associated with calving were uncovered by John Fishwick (RVC) by drawing on experiences in the UK and overseas. It is significant that calving problems with the same bulls are more marked between farms and management is the key to routine successful calvings.

There is a need for the vet to become more involved and aware of normal calvings with attention to condition score at drying off, and calving, together with the transition diet. Training programmes using a dead calf with staff blindfolded encourage recognition of parts of the calf, which helps with assisted calvings. Calving jacks might be better applied if sold on prescription. The use of NSAIDs on farm is an important consideration.

If you think you knew about recumbency in cattle, the expert review conducted at Nottingham University and presented by Jon Huxley may challenge opinions. Responses to questions on likely prognosis and clinical signs were included, with observations of on-farm care as guiding outcomes and culling recommendations.

An evidence-based approach is considered the way forward. Observations on levels of pain scores for various presentations were variable but the general agreement was that “you know the ones that are going to die”.

Booklet on slaughter

A new booklet is available from the BCVA (www.bcva.org.uk), entitled Guidance for veterinary surgeons on the emergency slaughter of cattle.

The factors involved when deciding on unfit animals (not healthy before slaughter), fit for transport (not to cause injury or unnecessary suffering), emergency on-farm slaughter and fallen stock, were presented by John Blackwell (Brownlow Vet Centre). The economic cost of treatment compared to slaughter has to be also considered. The point was made that each candidate for emergency slaughter on farm is unique. Model declarations are also within the new publication.

This meeting on animal welfare was an important coming together of views. No one who attended could doubt that there is much work to be done and that there is knowledge available that can be applied for the benefit of cattle and cattle keepers.

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