Cow Fatalities On Farms And General Farm Animal Welfare
Currently, there is not quite a consensus regarding what is the best way to measure animal welfare. Much of the conversation around animal welfare tends to center around farmed animals, such as cows, chickens, and pigs, since they are killed in the largest numbers.
As it stands, in many countries, especially those in the European Union, authorities will conduct mandatory animal welfare assessments that measure many indicators, such as the prominence of lameness (abnormal stance of an animal caused by pain) and skin lesions. These assessments are comprehensive and typically take a significant amount of time to complete, leading them to be quite costly. Moreover, these assessments are not periodical and only measure the level of animal welfare at a specific point in time, not accounting for conditions that may have existed before or after the assessment. The combination of economic concerns and irregularity means that, no matter how comprehensive assessments are, they are not done as much as they should be.
If we were to reevaluate these assessments and try to determine the most important of all the indicators measured during a traditional animal welfare assessment, it’s reasonable to determine that measuring the number of cows dying prematurely would be an obvious indicator of poor conditions. This study sought to determine if cow mortality (cows being defined as female cattle having calved at least once, and mortality defined as cows dying unassisted or being euthanized on-farm) could be used as a sole indicator of the level of animal welfare on a farm.
The idea behind the study was that that cow mortality rate is a metric that is usually constantly updated and available on a per farm basis, especially in the E.U. where reporting cow mortality is a requirement. If cow mortality was determined to be a causal indicator of animal welfare, that would dramatically reduce the costs associated with animal welfare assessments, and allow authorities and third-parties to consistently determine the general level of animal welfare on farms over time.
The researchers analyzed ten different animal welfare indicator studies, half being quantitative and half being qualitative, that determined how associated cow mortality was to the overall animal welfare of a farm. While many of the studies showed associations demonstrating a higher likelihood of a farm having poor welfare conditions if their cow mortality rate was high, the researchers determined that the associations were not strong enough to determine causality.
In the most resounding of the studies, “an expert panel of 20 experts with a background in bovine veterinary practice, research, industry, public welfare control, and animal rights organizations” unanimously scored cow mortality as the most important of 49 animal welfare indicators. Though, it should be mentioned that other studies showed little to no statistical association.
What does this all mean? Well, the researchers recommended that there should be a more serious effort to study cow mortality associations to animal welfare as well as ensure that more farms are doing their due diligence in reporting cow mortality. While this may be an appropriate recommendation, the study also highlights the broader need to determine how to most efficiently and accurately determine the level of animal welfare per farm. Without some objective and accurate way to measure animal welfare, it will be difficult to establish a baseline for a conversation regarding what many believe to be is a significant problem in animal welfare on farms.
Determining the most efficient and accurate methods to measure animal welfare is up to our research community, but part of this, as the study acknowledges, is that there needs to be market demand as well. Meaning, if we really want proper animal welfare on our farms, the public will bear some of the responsibility in continuing the trend of demanding more information transparency of animal products and their labels.