Assessing The Welfare Of ‘Beef’ Cattle
Throughout Europe, very few regulations exist regarding keeping and raising cows for “beef” production. Yet numerous welfare concerns over the feeding, housing, and management of cows have been raised by animal protection groups. This paper, published in the journal Animal, investigated the welfare conditions of beef cows using a protocol developed by the European Union sponsored Welfare Quality® assessment system. It also evaluated the effectiveness of providing feedback from the assessment to farmers in prompting welfare improvements.
The study was conducted in Austria, Germany, and Italy on 63 farms that had already demonstrated concern for animal welfare by providing straw and mats for cows. After an initial assessment, one-third of farms were given written feedback, one-third were given written and oral feedback, and one-third received no feedback. Assessments were carried out again one month and six months later. Each assessment evaluated 27 measures (e.g. “% of lean animals,” “Space allowance in m2/700kg”) that were used to calculate scores of between 0-100 for 11 criterion (e.g. “Absence of prolonged hunger,” “Ease of movement”) and four overarching principles: “Good feeding,” “Good housing,” “Good health,” and “Appropriate behavior.” Finally, based on principle scores, farms were classified as “Acceptable,” “Enhanced,” or “Excellent.”
On the initial assessment, the mean score for all farms was above 50 for only one principle, “Good housing,” at 62%. These were followed by “Good health” at 50%, “Good feeding” at 49%, “and Appropriate Behavior” at 24%. The criterion scores varied, with the lowest scores obtained for “Expression of other behavior” at 0%, “Absence of disease” at 41%, and “Expression of social behavior” as 42%. Highest scores were achieved for “Absence of prolonged hunger” at 90%, “Absence of pain induced by management procedures” at 88%, and “Comfort around resting” at 77%. Overall, 32% of farms were classified as “Acceptable,” 65% as “Enhanced,” and only 3% as “Excellent.”
While several farms that received feedback from the initial assessment reported that they had made changes, scores from the second and third assessment remained nearly identical to those from the first. However, the authors point out that final assessments revealed a slight increase in “Enhanced” classifications of farms that received written and oral feedback. They note that the 6-month observation period was likely too short for considerable improvements to be made and recommend that longer-term studies be carried out.
The authors state that welfare findings were “rather good overall” since two-thirds of farms achieved the “Enhanced” level, but they note that “potentials for welfare improvement were identified, mainly in terms of diseases and social behavior.” Advocates would likely point out that many more improvements are necessary, as only 3% of farms were rated as “Excellent.” The article also provides evidence showing that the Welfare Quality® assessment system is a good tool for evaluating welfare but may not lead to changes in conditions, at least in the short term.