In the Netherlands there was a major public discussion about dairy cows not being put into pasture anymore. There is big pressure from the public to let the cows out to graze and initiatives to make this compulsory by law. On invitation, Jan Hulsen wrote this column for the leading Dutch agricultural newspaper Het Agrarisch Dagblad in September 2010.
I find debates about grazing or pasturing extremely difficult.
There are so many factors surrounding and connected with this topic. First of all, the debate turns out not to be about grazing itself, because no-one is against that. It is about the question: should grazing be made compulsory, yes or no?
The next question is: why would you want to make grazing compulsory? “Because it’s better for the cows” comes the answer. “The cows pick up when they’re on grass, and their legs heal.” Eh? Do cows need to go to pasture in order to recover? In this day and age, can’t we build and maintain a barn that keeps cows healthy? After all, the grazing season is only 5 months of the year.
I believe it is entirely possible to keep cows indoors for 7 months without their welfare falling below the line. And if we can do it for 7 months, we can do it for 12… First and foremost, it needs to be quite clear where the line is. So that everyone can see that “basic welfare is not at issue here”. This is an urgent task for agricultural science and extension. After that, anyone who wants to do so can add welfare enhancements. But that needn’t be made compulsory.
tribute to the farmers who have invested in better animal housing
For myself, the minimum level of animal welfare lies at the point where no animal in the group displays physical signs of chronic stress or has injuries caused by its conditions of housing. Animal welfare indoors depends partly on construction features of the house and partly on human decisions, management and handling. A tight cubicle can be a construction feature, but it is a decision not to then turn it into a deep litter cubicle. Over-stocking is a decision. Giving dry cows little room to move is also usually a decision, not an established fact...
We should all pay tribute to the farmers who have invested in better animal housing! Sand cubicles are a good option and are economically very competitive. As are deep litter cubicles with straw/lime mixtures for example. And stress-free straw areas for ‘special needs’ cows. Treatment areas! It will be great if loose housing in compost bedded barns will be an economical and legal option!
Hoof health and injuries
The main sticking points are hoof health and injuries. Until a few years ago, a quarter of Dutch cows on average were lame in February and fewer than 30% had two healthy hind hooves. This is due not to a lack of grazing but to a lack of critical and effective animal management. If the sector tolerates this situation, it is only logical that society should want to make grazing compulsory. Research by the Dutch Animal Health Service shows that hoof health can be easily controlled by good management, because there are plenty of farms performing very well.
Nobody can design a barn that stands up to a farmer who makes bad decisions or lacks in expertise. But on the other hand, a skilled farmer can achieve adequate animal welfare standards in a very limited barn. In the first farmer’s case, grazing benefits the cows enormously. However… grazing also calls for expertise, constant alertness and improvisational skills. Indoors, everything is much more predictable…
Care of animals is first-rate
The general public likes the sight of cows at pasture: they contribute to the value of the rural landscape, the image of the countryside, the acceptance of dairy farming and the appreciation of milk and dairy produce. This is all true. But the sector and the individual farmer have to judge this and work it out for themselves. It is a strategic decision and therefore an individual one, made to a large extent following your heart.
In my view, the point is that every farmer should be able to show every day that the care of his animals is first-rate. And that starts with a healthy housing period. Grazing need not be made compulsory in my opinion, but I do believe that everyone in the sector, not just the individual farmer, should make an effort to provide access to grass for cows on all farms and make pasturing a success. Because healthy cows at pasture is best, after all.
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