Intergroup meeting: dairy cow welfare in the EU

On 19/04/2018, in All posts, by Animal Welfare Intergroup

The Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals met on Thursday 19 April to discuss the welfare of dairy cattle. The European Union counts 24.5 million dairy cows distributed among 1.7 million farms. The intensification of the dairy industry following the end of milk quotas raised serious concerns on animal welfare. The Intergroup wished to discuss this issue and explore the opportunities for actions and improvements. The meeting was chaired by Anja Hazekamp (GUE/NGL – Netherlands), Vice-President of the Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals.

Dr. Elena Nalon, Farm Animals Programme Leader at Eurogroup for Animals, opened the floor with a presentation on the welfare of dairy cows in the European Union based on the latest Commission’s overview report on this topic. In the absence of species-specific legislation, the welfare of dairy cows falls under  the General Farm Animals Directive (98/58). The Directive states that “Member States shall make provision to ensure that the owners or keepers take all reasonable steps to ensure the welfare of animals under their care and to ensure that those animals are not caused any unnecessary pain, suffering or injury[1]. Despite this legal obligation, a 2017 report by the DG for internal policies identifies dairy cattle welfare as one of the main animal welfare problems in the EU[2].

Dr. Nalon provided a summary of the general animal welfare conditions in European dairy farms and highlighted the main welfare problems: lameness, mastisis, metabolic and reproductive problems. She  stressed the shortcomings of the available data on dairy cattle welfare and their lack of consistency and harmonisation at the European level. She stated: “The recommendations of the European Safety Authority and of the European Commission are clear: there is a need for systematic collection of animal based indicators of dairy cow welfare, with a harmonised methodology, and in such a way that veterinarians, farmers, and the competent authorities of Member States can use the information to take appropriate actions as required.

Dr. Laura Boyle, Senior Research Officer in animal behaviour and welfare at Teagasc, focused on how to measure dairy cattle welfare. She used data to compare the animal welfare impact of cubicle-housing systems and pasture-based systems. She assessed their respective risk factors and hazards in regard of housing, feeding, management and genetics. The comparison showed the animal welfare benefits of the pasture-based system despite the existence of risks such as parasitism or grass tetany.

However, the intensification of the dairy sector threatens to erode positive welfare attributes of pasture-based system. Farmers, veterinarians and advisors agree that the expansion of the dairy industry poses more risks than benefits to cow welfare. The focus on low cost leads to larger herds, which means longer milking time and, in combination with the fragmentation of land base, longer walking distances for the cows. Studies also showed a lack of investment in infrastructures and knowledge gaps among the stakeholders. Dr Boyle summarized: “In spite of the welfare benefits associated with access to pasture, rapid expansion poses new increased risks for dairy cow welfare.”

The two presentations were followed by a lively debate among the members of the Intergroup and the experts.

Political Call of the Intergroup Meeting

After the abolition of the milk quotas, governments and farmers’ associations have pushed for the expansion and intensification of the EU dairy sector, driven by export prospects and a stable global demand for some dairy products. This raises serious concerns for animal welfare, and therefore the Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals believes that it is imperative to eventually introduce specific legislation protecting dairy cattle in the EU. In preparation for this, the European Commission should urgently produce official guides to good practice for the welfare of dairy cattle in consultation with all relevant stakeholders.


For more background information on problems relating to the welfare of dairy cows in the EU, click here >> Background Information




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