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The welfare of dairy cows in organic milk production systems - AW1020

In recent years there has been a large increase in the production and consumption of organically-produced milk and other dairy produce. In response there are many UK dairy farmers who have converted, or are converting, their farms to this system of production. Organic produce appeals to consumers who are concerned about their health, animal welfare and the effect of conventional agricultural systems on the environment. The recent report from the Commission on the Future of Farming and Food provided further support for the goal of sustainable agriculture. Although many organic producer groups claim that standards of animal welfare are higher on organic farms compared to conventional farms, there are concerns that this may not always be so. The principles of organic farming are that animal health and welfare are primarily promoted by good management and care of animals. Despite this, there are concerns that in practice some of the regulations for organic milk production may be compromising welfare, particularly those restricting use of veterinary medicines and levels and type of concentrate feed. Additionally, there is little information on the impact of the organic regulations on welfare that would allow organic farmers to respond to consumer concern and improve the welfare of their cows. If good management techniques and quality of care can reduce the incidence of disease, this information is also relevant to conventional management of dairy cows.

Given this background the primary aim of this project is to provide data that will allow an objective assessment of the potential pros and cons of organic dairy production for cow welfare, and to use information from the project to establish best practice for cow health and welfare in both organic and conventional production.

We will focus on 5 key questions which to us encapsulate the main concerns over cow welfare in organic production:
1. What is the relative risk (as measured by prevalence and incidence) of different disease states for cows managed in organic or conventional systems?
2. Is there a difference between organic and conventional systems in the recovery rate from disease?
3. Is there evidence of some organic disease treatments being more effective in treatment of disease than others?
4. Is there evidence that modern dairy cows are metabolically less well adapted to organic than conventional dairy systems?
5. Is there evidence that improved husbandry conditions are being applied to cows in organic systems and that these conditions impose less ‘environmental (behavioural) stress’ on cows?:

Our approach will be an on-farm case-control study comparing organic and conventional farms. Our main criteria for matching farms will be quality of record keeping, geography, size of farm, use of the Holstein breed and genetic merit of cows. We will use a participatory approach by creating a Consortium of study farms (at least 80 farms or 40 pairs), and we will organise regional meetings and create an internet site to facilitate links within the Consortium. Consortium farms will be studied at 2 levels: Level 1: In addition to the use of retrospective records of health and fertility, we will encourage all Consortium members to collect health data on individual disease cases, treatment and recovery from disease. We will audit the collection of these farm records at least twice a year, and in addition collect additional data on lameness and structural aspects of the farm relating to welfare (e.g. stocking density). Level 2: For a sub-sample of farms (40 farms or 20 pairs) we will collect additional data on blood and milk samples (to allow metabolic, micro-nutrient and cortisol measurements), condition scores, behaviour and feed analyses.

We will analyse data both in the context of the key questions but also to address cross-relationships between disease patterns, efficacy of drug treatments, and metabolic and environmental stress.
01: Recruitment of organic farms, organisation of the farmer Consortium,refinement of experimental protocols (Months 1-3)
02: Data collection from farms (4-30 months)
03: Analysis of data and feedback to farmers (31-36 months)
Project Documents
• Final Report : The welfare of dairy cows in organic milk production systems   (155k)
• Final Report : The welfare of dairy cows in organic milk production systems   (253k)
Time-Scale and Cost
From: 2003

To: 2007

Cost: £299,989
Contractor / Funded Organisations
University - Scottish Agricultural College
Animal Welfare              
Plants and Animals              
Fields of Study
Animal Welfare