Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Claw health, animal welfare and economics

When looking at production diseases in dairy cattle, the big four are: mastitis, reproduction, foot disorders and metabolic disorders. All of these disease problems have the same aspects, they are multi-factorial, which means that there might be different causes, different risk factors, different treatments and different preventive measures. This makes them complex. Of these diseases, mastitis receives the most attention. Mastitis is directly affecting the quality of milk and most probably the most expensive of these.

However, foot disorders are believed to be the most important production disease affecting cow welfare. Research shows that there is a high prevalence of foot disorders (up to 80 %) and foot disorders have a long duration and can be very painful.

Together with prof. Elsbeth Stassen, who holds the chair of Animals and Society in the department of Animal Sciences of Wageningen University, I advise Marielle Bruijnis, a PhD student who studies welfare and economic effects of foot disorders. A first thing Marielle studied was the economics of foot disorders. She showed that on average, foot disorders cost € 53 per average cow on the farm per year. This is an average, there might be large differences between farms because of a different prevalence, but also because of natural variation. Interesting was, that a relatively large proportion of these costs are caused by subclinical (not directly visible) foot disorders. Moreover, most of the costs are caused by milk production losses and increased risk of culling. This means that dairy farmers might very well underestimate the costs associated with foot disorders. These data have been published in a Journal of Dairy Science paper (volume 93; pages 2419-2432) and in a farmers journal (Veeteelt 27 (13): 50-52).

Marielle has continued her work estimating the welfare effect of different foot disorders (a paper on this has just been accepted for publication, so I will tell more about this later on) and has been combining the economics of foot disorders with the economics of foot disorders. The underlying question was that if the most important foot disorders (from an economic point of view) was less important from a welfare point of view, farmers might improve claw health, thinking they improved welfare also, but the latter should not necessarily be true. Fortunately, the economic and welfare effects of different claw disorders were quite well correlated. Marielle recently presented that at the UFAW (Universities Federation for Animal Welfare) conference and I had to pleasure to present the same data on the IDF World Dairy Summit, held in Parma in October 2011. You can find the slides and some more precise data on slideshare.

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