Beyond health: Considerations for promoting good welfare in dairy calves – Dr. Jennifer Van Os, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Posted on June 27, 2018 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
Animal welfare is defined as the state of an individual animal in its current situation.  Dr. Jennifer Van Os, University of Wisconsin-Madison animal welfare extension specialist, told Vita Plus Calf Summit attendees to ensure an animal is in good welfare, we must seek to understand what that means from a “species-specific biological perspective.”

Her breakout session focused on the definition of animal welfare and how it is measured.  She also discussed new animal welfare research and how you could apply it to practices on your operation.

She explained that animal welfare is broken down into three different areas – body, mind and nature.  Body focuses on the animal’s biological functions and health; mind is concerned with the animal’s psychological state and feelings; and nature describes the animal’s ability to live a natural life without abnormal behaviors.

Van Os said bodily health is viewed as essential, and producers tend to prioritize this area because it is easiest to measure and assess.  But we need to ensure that all three areas are being satisfied to ensure good animal welfare

“Health is nothing new,” Van Os said.  “We need to explore other areas.”

Researchers are now exploring subjects related to the animal’s mind and nature to improve their welfare.  She used dehorning and calf hutches as examples.

Dehorning is widely practiced by producers, but Van Os said nobody knew how long any pain lasted after the treatment or how to address it.  Recently, researchers at the University of California-Davis looked into pain sensitivity in the weeks after dehorning.

Researchers tested calves’ pain sensitivity after dehorning until the wound was healed around week nine.  Results indicated, while less sensitivity decreased by week nine, the calves did experience sensitivity throughout the healing process.

With this information, Van Os said it is best to dehorn calves before they are two months old and to practice good pain management before dehorning.  This includes using an injection with lidocaine to numb the area and an anti-inflammatory to reduce any swelling.  She also said you should be cautious of dehorning too young because research in other species show increased sensitivity to pain later in life if exposed too early.

One option to improve animal welfare is polled genes from traditional or precision breeding.  This would eliminate the need to dehorn any animals and improve pain management.  However, this technology is not yet a reality due to a lack of public acceptance.  Until this is a reality, she said we need to find new ways to treat calves after dehorning.

Lastly, Van Os spoke about the benefits group housing can have on calves.  She said new research has shown pairing calves with older animals, or with at least one other calf at a young age, can help improve cognitive abilities.

Van Os explained how researchers at the University of British Columbia tested calves housed individually and group-housed calves with a computer game.  Initially, all the calves exhibited similar capabilities to learn the game, but when the rules of the game changed, the group-housed calves were able to adapt to the changes, unlike the individually housed calves.

Test results were similar for calves in a large group and with calves housed with one other calf.  Van Os explained this is important because cows encounter change regularly.  She said having higher cognitive development can help them adapt quicker to new environments and feed, which can lead to better production later in life.

“Reduced fear with new feed items translates to better intakes and then better weight gain,” Van Os explained.

Van Os closed her session by reiterating the animal’s biological function is still important and critical to welfare, but it is already talked about enough.  She said we have the resources to limit pain and need to continue to help promote cognitive development with social housing.

Category: Animal handling
Animal health
Starting Strong - Calf Care