Rebecca Veale, NFU animal health adviser, looks at dairy farm size and the link to animal health and welfare.
We’ve heard more claims in recent days that the bigger the herd size then the more chance there is that cattle health and welfare is compromised. Infuriatingly there is absolutely no evidence to support this assumption, but as usual it makes a great media headline.
There has been a vast amount of research carried out over the years on the many diseases and welfare issues for dairy cows. Some diseases are more of a challenge for some systems, but there is clearly no perfect or ideal system - ultimately all the reports I’ve seen conclude that cow health and welfare is linked to stockmanship, management practice and husbandry and not herd size or farm system.
This was cemented by the recent European Food Standards Authority report which stated that “production disease impact on individual animal’s welfare state does not depend on herd size or farming system”. The report also highlights the two things that are crucial for optimal cow health and welfare – “stockpersons’ empathy and knowledge about identifying sick animals and quick access to veterinarian assistance”. Neither of these is influenced by the size of the herd.
We understand that calling on the services of a vet is expensive and very few farms can afford or warrant a full time vet on farm. Interestingly the same EFSA report acknowledged this and highlighted that those who are less likely to rely on veterinary assistance need to be provided with tools for checking cow health, such as specific animal-based measures.
The challenges in the industry at the moment sometimes cloud how lucky UK farmers are on this front. We have a levy board (AHDB Dairy) which works very hard to provide an array of information and support to farmers. Whether it is in person, on paper, digitally or via their regular webinars (take a look at their website, there’s loads of info) it’s valuable stuff. And Red Tractor Assurance, which 97% of dairy farmers in England and Wales are part of, requires a bespoke Herd Health Plan developed alongside the farm vet – contact which is really important.
Dairy farmers in the UK are very proud of what they produce, and rightly so. The standards of health and welfare in the UK are as good, or even better, than our European and global competitors. The most important thing for consumers is to support our farmers, in the knowledge that whatever scale or system they farm, the health and welfare of the herd is of paramount importance. And for that to continue we need our customers to continue buying British dairy products.