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Research article2009Peer reviewed

Scientific opinion on welfare of dairy cows in relation to leg and locomotion problems based on a risk assessment with special reference to the impact of housing, feeding, management and genetic selection

Algers, Bo; Blokhuis, Harry; Bötner, A; Broom, DM; Costa, P; Domingo, M; Greiner, M; Hartung, J; Koenen, F; Müller-Graf, C; Raj, M; Morton, DB; Osterhaus, A; Pfeiffer, DU; Roberts, R; Sanaa, M; Salman, M; Sharp, JM; Vannier, P; Wierup, Martin


Following a request from the European Commission, the AHAW Panel was asked to deliver a Scientific Opinion on the welfare of dairy cows, considering whether current farming and husbandry systems comply with the requirements of and welfare of dairy cows from the pathological, zootechnical, physiological and behavioural points of view. Due to the great diversity of topics and the huge amount of scientific data, it was proposed that separate scientific opinions on different welfare subjects would be more adequate and effective. Therefore, it was agreed to subdivide the risk assessment process into four different subjects: i) metabolic and reproductive disorders, ii) udder disorders, iii) leg and locomotion problems and iiii) behaviour, fear and pain. A fifth scientific opinion integrates conclusions and recommendations from the scientific report with the outcomes from the four separate risk assessments. The scientific opinion on the welfare of dairy cows in relation to leg and locomotion problems, based on a risk assessment with special reference to the impact of housing, feeding, management and genetic selection was adopted by the AHAW Panel on 05 June 2009. In the risk assessment four different farming scenarios were considered: 1) cubicle houses; 2) tie-stalls; 3) straw yards; 4) pasture. Identified hazards were classified under (a) housing, (b) nutrition and feeding, (c) management and (d) genetics. The risk assessment outcomes for each of these four classes of hazards were determined and the four different farming scenarios compared. When comparing the different farming systems it is concluded that the farming system has a major influence on leg and locomotion problems defined both in terms of magnitude of the adverse effect and risk estimate. Hazards associated with housing and management rank much higher, in terms of risk estimate, than those associated with nutrition and genetics. Magnitudes of the adverse effects and risk estimates in housing are much greater in systems involving cubicle housing or tie-stalls, than in straw yards or at pasture. Hazards attributable to management and genetic selection for high yields are similar for all farming systems, however risk estimates are higher in cubicles and tie-stalls than in straw yards or at pasture. In general, concrete flooring has a higher risk of claw disorders than pasture and straw-yards, since standing and walking for prolonged periods on concrete floors, or floors that are wet or covered in slurry cause severe foot disorders. According to the scoring system used in this analysis, the most important hazard in relation to the housing was the lack of space in tie-stalls. Larger space allowance, in the walking area as well as the lying area, is beneficial for the welfare of cows with respect to decreased aggression, injuries, and occurrence of lameness. Tied cattle have more lameness than those free to move with good flooring and resting facilities. In cubicles the most important magnitudes of the adverse effect and risk estimates are associated with inadequate floor in the walking area, poor cubicle design and inadequate bedding. Dairy cows have a strong motivation for lying, and lie down for 7-15 hours per day. The lying time varies between housing systems and can be affected by housing design. Altered patterns of lying down can be a sign of lameness, injury or poor housing design. When dairy cattle are kept in cubicle houses, foot and leg disorders are substantially more frequent than they are in straw yards. Since leg and foot disorders are the major welfare problem for dairy cattle and leg and foot disorders are a problem even in well-managed cubicle houses, alternatives to cubicles, e.g. straw yards, are needed and in the short-term improvements to cubicle house design should be made. In the case of nutrition and feeding the most important hazards are inadequacies in transition feeding and imbalanced diets. The greatest risk estimate is related to transition feeding. However the probability of risks attributable to nutrition and feeding systems are low relative to those attributable to housing and management. As regards the management measures for dairy cows, the risk assessment showed that the most important management hazards causing leg and locomotion problems are those related to inadequate care and monitoring of foot health and hygiene, and these are similar across all housing systems considered. However the risk estimate and magnitude of the adverse effect are exacerbated by hazards in the housing category and are approximately twice as great in cubicle systems and tie-stalls as in straw yards or at pasture. Most lame cows are in pain and have greater difficulty in coping with their living conditions than non-lame cows because of the effects of the foot or leg disorder on walking, lying comfort, standing up and avoidance behaviour. Lame cows are more likely to become subordinate, lose body condition and are more prone to show reduced fertility and to develop mastitis and metabolic disease. Weekly attention to foot hygiene in dairy cattle leads to reduction of infectious conditions of the foot. When the prevalence of recognisable locomotor difficulties in dairy cattle is above 10%, this indicates that the prevention programme is inadequate. Because of the high risk of lameness in dairy cattle all dairy farmers should implement a lameness prevention programme. Well-executed hoof-trimming can reduce the likelihood of lameness and improve cow welfare but poorly executed hoof-trimming can cause lameness. The genetic selection has changed the form and size of dairy cows and hence demands on their behaviour and other adaptive mechanisms. The spatial requirements of the dairy cow have increased, as well as its vulnerability for mechanical impacts and wounds on the exterior parts of the body, the skin, limbs and claws. Udder shape and volume are of specific concern, with respect to normal locomotion, prevention of lameness and comfort during resting in the most common housing types. The risk assessment confirmed that genetic selection for high milk yield with insufficient emphasis on other traits relating to fitness increases the risk of suffering from leg and locomotion problems. This risk is greater when housing, nutrition and management are unable to compensate for the adverse effects of genetic selection. A general conclusion is that leg and locomotion problems in dairy cows are multifactorial in origin, so that the magnitudes of the adverse effect in individual animals and the risk estimates, measured in terms of herd prevalence, can usually be attributed to a combination of hazards associated with housing, feeding and nutrition, management and genetics. However the most important hazards and risks are those associated with inadequate provisions for lying, standing and walking in cubicle houses and tie-stalls, and management failures relating to locomotion monitoring and foot care


animal welfare; leg and locomotion; lameness; dairy cows; risk assessment; housing; nutrition and feeding; management; genetic selection; farming systems

Published in

EFSA Journal
2009, article number: 1142
Publisher: EFSA