Housing and Management Biggest Contributors to Welfare

Serious welfare risks to cattle and calves in the EU, identified in a scientific review by the EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW), were associated with housing and management.
calendar icon 28 May 2012
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Following a request from the European Commission, the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW) was asked to deliver a Scientific Opinion on the welfare of cattle kept for beef production and of calves in intensive farming systems.

The European Commission is in the process of evaluating the European Union policy on animal welfare, taking account of socio-economic and trade issues. The overall aim is to improve the welfare of animals. To this end, the Commission requested EFSA to give an independent view on animal-based measures for the assessment of welfare in cattle, pigs and poultry. Before starting this work for beef cattle and calves, the Commission requested an update of scientific evidence relating to the welfare of cattle kept for beef production and calves in intensive farming systems; in particular, to consider the extent to which the conclusions and recommendations of two previous Scientific Opinions were still valid. These Opinions were the “Welfare of cattle kept for beef production” (SCAHAW, 2001) and “The risks of poor welfare in intensive calf farming systems” (EFSA, 2006).

The SCAHAW (2001) Opinion “The Welfare of Cattle kept for Beef Production” differed from EFSA Opinions, in that it did not include a formal animal welfare risk assessment. Over half the Opinion was a description of production systems, housing design and natural behaviour of cattle. Effects of housing, management and the environment on behaviour and some aspects of welfare were reviewed in detail. However, many factors with impact on welfare, such as breeding and genetics, feeding and feeding disorders, interactions between management, infectious disease and cattle welfare were reviewed only briefly or not at all. Where the SCAHAW (2001) Opinion was comprehensive (e.g. behaviour, mutilations), this current Opinion reviews only new evidence and only amends the conclusions and recommendations justified by this new evidence. Where the SCAHAW (2001) Opinion contains little or no evidence, it has been necessary to include references that precede 2001, and present new conclusions and recommendations. In this Opinion all systems for rearing cattle for beef production have been considered, ranging from intensive systems, where the animals are housed throughout life, to semi-extensive systems, in which animals are finished at pasture. The welfare of suckler cows and breeding bulls was not considered by SCAHAW (2001) and, to comply with the scope of the mandate, it is not considered here either. However, it is recommended that it be considered in a future mandate.

The Chapter on the welfare of calves in intensive farming systems adopts a similar approach to the previous Opinion (EFSA, 2006). It updates the review of scientific evidence and the approach to risk assessment, since developed and consolidated in the EFSA Scientific Opinion (2012) “Guidance on Risk Assessment in Animal Welfare”. The production systems under consideration relate to calves, from the dairy herd reared for white veal, pink veal or prior to entry into beef production units. The welfare of unwanted “bobby” calves killed shortly after birth was not considered in the EFSA (2006) Scientific Opinion on the welfare of calves in intensive systems and, once again, to comply with the scope of the mandate it is not considered here. However, it is recommended that it be considered in a future mandate.

The impact of heat and cold stress on the welfare of beef cattle was not considered in SCAHAW (2001), so it has been reviewed in detail. Beef cattle can tolerate and adapt to a wide range of air temperatures, and metabolic heat production increases with increasing feed intake. Thus, animals on the highest rations are least sensitive to cold and most sensitive to heat. Cold stress can be reduced by provision of appropriate shelter and a dry lying area. Therefore, it is recommended that beef cattle confined in houses or open feedlots should be provided with structures and facilities to reduce the effects of factors contributing to thermal stress such as excess air movement, precipitation, relative humidity and solar load. Provided that these are effective there is no need to make provision for the control of air temperature.

Beef cattle kept on slatted floors have a higher incidence of injuries than animals on straw or sloped, partially straw-bedded areas. Partial rubberisation or rubber mats on concrete floors, especially for lying areas, reduces the prevalence of lesions to claws and joints. However, wherever possible, cattle housed on slatted concrete floors should have access to a bedded area. Particular attention to the type of slats should be given to avoid slipperiness.

New evidence suggests that castration by rubber ring alone is less painful than a combination of Burdizzo and rubber rings. Rubber ring castration should be used in animals only under the age of 2 months and the scrotum cut after 8-9 days of ring application. Immunocastration has been shown to reduce aggressive and sexual behaviour in bulls. Surgical castration may lead to complications such as haemorrhage, infection, severe inflammation and tetanus. Approximately 35 % of beef cattle in Europe are disbudded and 15 % are dehorned by amputation. Nevertheless, disbudding or dehorning with sedation only, results in severe stress and pain. Therefore, cattle at any age should always be provided with local or regional anaesthesia at the time of surgical mutilations and systemic analgesia for two days or so thereafter.

Genomics and related technologies offer new opportunities for utilising existing genetic variability to improve several important welfare related traits, such as disease resistance, fertility, heat tolerance, and temperament. Selection tools have been successfully developed to identify carriers of deleterious genes and to control many genetic and environmentally-induced diseases. In the category of pathogen-associated disease, rapid progress is being made toward implementation of data collection, identification of DNA markers and development of tests that can be used in marker-assisted selection. Therefore, it is recommended that further research aimed at developing tools needed for implementation of marker-assisted selection to improve general resistance to disease.

Beef cattle fed intensively on high grain rations (< 15 % physically effective fibre) are at high risk of digestive disorders, especially sub-acute ruminal acidosis (SARA). Cattle that experience repeated episodes of SARA are at risk of rumen parakeratosis, liver abscesses and laminitis. Measures for the control of SARA include the feeding of buffers, drugs to stimulate salivation, and antibiotics (not permitted in the EU). Rations for finishing cattle should include at least 15 % physically effective fibre to reduce the risk of bloat, SARA and its sequelae. Feed supplements for the control of SARA should be restricted to those that stabilise rumen pH through natural buffering.

Most beef cattle diseases have a multi-factorial aetiology. In addition to pathogens and animal-related conditions, other contributing factors include environmental stressors that disturb homeostasis in the animal. These diseases can become chronic when infected animals are not detected and treated early. Chronic pneumonia results in very poor welfare with pain, asphyxiation and ill-thrift. Calves showing severe respiratory distress after multiple treatments should be killed on the farm. To promote effective control of multifactorial infectious diseases, cattle should be kept in environments that minimise physiological and emotional stress.

When calves are reared for veal production it is essential to provide solid feed containing adequate amounts of physically effective fibre in order to promote the development of a healthy and functional rumen, stimulate normal rumination behaviour and prevent abnormal oral behaviours. The conclusions of the EFSA (2006) Opinion concerning the iron requirement and clinical anaemia in calves reared for white veal are largely supported by new research. However, clinical signs of iron-deficiency anaemia, including suppression of normal behaviour, may already occur prior to an actual decrease of blood haemoglobin levels. In white veal calves oral supplementation with iron may improve milk intake and digestion in animals exhibiting normal haemoglobin levels. Other clinical and biochemical measures in addition to blood haemoglobin levels should be included as indicators of anaemia in order to safeguard the welfare of veal calves restricted in their dietary iron supply. However, this topic requires further research.

A reduction of the lying space allowance from 1.25 m2 to 0.75 m2 per animal for calves with a live weight up to 100 kg and a reduction from 1.50 m2 to 1.00 m2 per animal for calves with a live weight up to 150 kg decreased the occurrence of synchronous resting and reduced the opportunity to lie in a relaxed recumbent posture. Addition of an environmentally-enriched post-feeding area to an automatic milk-feeding system can significantly reduce cross-sucking in group-housed calves reared for veal. More research should be focused on pen design to improve calf comfort and achieve environmental enrichment that improves welfare. There is little evidence that floor type has an effect on the health of veal calves. However, the prevalence of bursal swelling in the knee was significantly higher in veal calves housed on concrete (approximately 17 %) than that in calves housed either on wooden slats (approximately 7 %) or on rubber or straw (< 1 %). However, provision of small amounts of straw or rubber mats for veal calves on wooden slats can result in discomfort from floors that are wet and dirty, unless the bedding is well managed.

Calves that do not get good quality colostrum after birth are more susceptible to endemic enteric and respiratory diseases. Calves from dairy farms must get an adequate quantity of colostrum at the most appropriate time. Environmental factors predisposing to respiratory disease were lack of ventilation, high animal density, extreme temperatures, high relative humidity and ammonia concentration. Ventilation should be regulated in order to keep ammonia concentrations as low as possible without creating draughts at the calf level. Group-housing of calves resulted in better welfare for this social species, except when there was significant enteric or respiratory infectious disease. In order to minimise the risk of poor welfare, calves should be managed so as to minimise exposure to enteric and respiratory infection. When there is a significant risk of cross-infection, it may be necessary to prevent direct contact between calves, but retain visual contact, during the first weeks of life by keeping them in individual pens or hutches.

Prevention of common calf diseases in the first 6 months of life, such as diarrhoea and the bovine respiratory syndrome, requires a systematic approach by improving management and housing conditions, specifically the preparation of the cow, hygiene of the calving environment, including dry clean bedding and high air quality, immediate supply with maternal antibodies, putting calves from different sources into different air-spaces, and no mixing with older animals, as well as careful attention and a rapid response to any sign indicating disease. Identifying sick animals in the early stages of disease is a crucial element for therapeutic success.

The hazard analysis identified the most serious risks to beef cattle and calves on the basis of magnitude and probability of adverse effect. The hazard analysis for beef cattle identified three major categories of welfare problem attributable to risks associated with housing and management:

  • Respiratory diseases: linked to overstocking, inadequate ventilation, and mixing of animals, as well as failure of early diagnosis and treatment.
  • Digestive disorders: linked to intensive concentrate feeding, lack of physically effective fibre in the diet.
  • Behavioural disorders: linked to inadequate floor space, co-mingling in the feedlot and intensive concentrates.

The main welfare problems for intensively reared calves attributable to risks associated with housing and management were:

  • Iron deficiency anaemia: a direct consequence of dietary iron restriction used to produce white meat.
  • Digestive and respiratory disorders: linked to high intakes of liquid feed and inadequate intake of physically effective fibre, and cross-infection resulting from mixing of calves from multiple sources.
  • Discomfort and disturbed resting behaviour: linked to inadequate floors and floor space.

May 2012

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