By Dr. Rob Tremblay
An international farm animal welfare conference was held in Ontario a few weeks ago to focus on the welfare and well-being of dairy and beef calves and included veterinarians from 11 countries. With the ProAction initiative from the Dairy Farmers of Canada, interest in dairy calf and cow welfare and how to measure it is quite high.
Canada is home to many major researchers in food animal welfare and several made conference presentations. Dr. Dan Weary, from the University of British Columbia, pointed out that much of the discussion about welfare has been around the importance of relieving pain in situations like dehorning, while other welfare concerns might be overlooked. Like what? Long-term stress associated with situations like disease, inadequate housing, isolation from other calves and inadequate nutrition.
The conference ended with breakout sessions where veterinarians had an opportunity to present their views on calf welfare and offer their suggestions for future research priorities.
A common response from the breakout groups was that suffering due to failure to implement well-recognized disease preventive practices was an important animal welfare issue. Failure to implement preventive measures contributes to the occurrence of avoidable diseases. The rates of common diseases, such as diarrhea and pneumonia, remain very high amongst beef and dairy cattle in Canada and the United States even though, in most cases, the causes of those diseases and ways of preventing them are well understood. There are gaps in our knowledge on some diseases such as ‘summer pneumonia’ in beef calves but, for the most part, we understand the microbes involved and the important preventive measures for the major calfhood diseases.
Many veterinarians have promoted the implementation of infectious disease preventive measures as good animal husbandry that also provides economic advantages through reducing treatment costs and increasing growth efficiency. Failure to adopt and implement disease preventive practices was a common concern amongst the conference veterinarians. This means that permitting calves to get sick, then treating them when the disease could have been prevented, doesn’t just make bad economic sense, it contributes to poor calf welfare.
A focus on disease prevention must be a key component of consumer-oriented programs that aim to produce beef from cattle that have not been treated with antibiotics. The best way to eliminate treatments with antibiotics is to ensure the animals don’t get sick in the first place.
Prioritizing disease prevention looks like it will be a new topic in animal welfare. Both the dairy and the beef codes of practice address diseases and disease prevention in a general way. The dairy code suggests upper limits for the per cent of lame cows and cows with clinical mastitis but offers no suggested ceiling targets for common diseases in calves, such as diarrhea and pneumonia. The beef code does not set any specific targets for diseases.
Wouldn’t a discussion of targets, for the upper limits of common infectious diseases, improve production efficiency as well as welfare?