The term continuous housing describes a system of management for dairy cows where the cows are housed indoors throughout the year. Traditionally, cows in Great Britain are housed during the winter and allowed outdoors to graze during the summer. In recent years there has been an increase in the number of farmers using a continuous housing system, due to factors such as the need to provide a consistent feed ration to cows with high milk yields, the uptake of robotic milking, and an increase in herd size. In the near future, Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reforms and the need to control pollutants, such as greenhouse gas emissions, produced by dairy cows, may also be important drivers causing farmers to adopt a continuous housing system.
However, there are concerns about continuous housing systems with regard to animal welfare. Recent studies in Britain (Defra-funded study AW1006) and the Netherlands have shown that continuous housing in cubicle systems is associated with higher levels of lameness and leg injury than in farms using a summer-grazing system. There is also general concern that continuous housing of cattle restricts the performance of natural behaviour. Confinement housing has been shown to restrict behaviour in other farm animal species, and in some cases leads to the performance of abnormal behaviour or stereotypes.
Our aim in the proposed project is to address these issues. Firstly, we aim to determine how many farmers across Great Britain use a continuous housing system and the rate of conversion, as this is currently unknown. Secondly, we will compare the health of cows in continuously-housed systems with those in summer grazing systems by using culling and fertility data from BCMS/RADAR and the national milk recording agencies. The data from farms using continuous-housing with a loafing area will be compared to those without a loafing area. Thirdly, we will investigate how we might best allow housed dairy cattle to perform a full range of natural behaviour. Recent work has shown that having access to large purpose-built spaces or ‘loafing areas’ does increase the behavioural repertoire. However, this preliminary work must be expanded to determine how best to design these loafing areas to maximise the range of behaviours performed and cow usage, in terms of location of the loafing area and what resources are provided in it. Fourthly, we also determine how the quality of the indoor area affects use of a loafing area. Important aspects of welfare such as lameness, leg injury and performance of behaviour will be monitored. Finally, the results of the experiments will be presented to farmers, relevant industry bodies and dairy farm assurance groups by presenting the study to visitors to the Dairy Research Centre and by holding a ‘Subject Day’ at the end of the project.
SAC has considerable experience in research in dairy systems, nutrition, cow health and welfare and dairy cow breeding. A network of SAC farm advisors and dairy specialists convey results from research programmes to farmers and other industry organisations, and feedback from industry to researchers. This dialogue will be used to inform the research programme and provide knowledge transfer. Two dairy farms at the SAC Dairy Research Centre, Dumfries will be involved in the study. One of these farms, Acrehead, has flexible experimental units which can be used for detailed experimental work. The other, Crichton Royal Farm, has an on-going systems trial comparing a continuously housed herd with a maximal grazing herd. The continuously-housed herd has access to an existing loafing area. The project will be run in collaboration with the Assured Dairy Farms (previously National Dairy Farm Assured Scheme), which monitors 95% of the dairy farms in Britain. This collaboration will provide data, and also a means to present results to the industry. A Steering Group will be formed, which will consist of scientists, farmers and industry representatives.
The results from this project will improve the understanding of the interactions between farm building design, loafing areas, and cow welfare in continuously housed dairy systems and relate these to the environmental impact and the sustainability of such systems. The information will be of use to government departments and farm assurance organisations when setting standards for continuously housed systems, and for farmers who are operating such systems. The KT outputs will include scientific papers, a subject day, publications aimed at farmers and consultants and a meeting specifically for the industry. This range of KT outputs, together with the association with Assured Dairy Farms, will ensure that the information from this project reaches as wide an audience as possible.