Happy Cows Everywhere

AMY STANTON joined CALS and UW-Extension in 2012 as a dairy science professor with particular expertise in animal well-being. Prior to joining CALS she was a post-doctoral fellow in the department of population medicine at the University of Guelph in Canada, where she also had earned a BS in agriculture and a Ph.D. with a dual emphasis in epidemiology and animal welfare. Stanton started off her academic career as a farm kid from a large dairy who was determined to work with animals, specifically dairy cattle. She thought she’d become a veterinarian until the science of animal welfare caught her eye. “It was really then that I found my passion,” she says. “Rather than treating individual animals I could start to look at the big picture. How could we change dairy cattle management practices and improve well-being for all animals rather than just treating the sick ones?”

Can you describe to us what you mean by animal well-being?
Animal well-being, or animal welfare science, is basically evaluating how an animal is performing in its environment. We take three basic principles: one is, how is the animal feeling? Is it hungry? Is it thirsty? Is it frustrated? The other principle is, how are the animals functioning? Are they growing, are they healthy, are they productive? The third is the animals’ ability to express important behaviors. What behaviors are very important to them? Are they able to groom if grooming is important to them? Are they able to escape if they’re in a fearful or stressful situation? By looking at these three factors we can evaluate if an animal is in the best possible situation for itself and how we could potentially improve it.

How do you determine what’s important to a cow?
One way is to force them to make a choice. We do what’s called a preference test. An example for a cow would be if we wanted to see which was more important—feed or the ability to rest. We might restrict the cows’ ability to lie down and eat for a few hours and then give them an option where they must choose one or the other. What we’ve found is that cattle actually prefer to rest rather than eat. So if you keep the animals away from their home space, perhaps going to the milking parlor for an extended period of time, you will actually reduce their feed intake because they have a limited amount of time in which to feed and sleep and they will choose to sleep.

How might we apply this information? What are some goals you’d hope to achieve?
Our overall goal is to get the animals to be comfortable and feeling very happy so that they are productive in such a way that they are sustainable for the dairy industry. By providing this information we can alter the cows’ environment. Taking the example of feed and rest, we know that we cannot keep them away from their home pen for long or we’re going to compromise their feed intake, and that is a big driver for milk production. We need to know where these trade-offs are, and through that we can improve their productivity and well-being.

Are cows happier in California than in Wisconsin?
No comment! [laughs] No, regardless of whether a cow is in Wisconsin or California, what it really comes down to is how we manage the animals. It doesn’t matter what size or what type of farm you have. It’s the human-animal interaction that seems to be the biggest driver. The farmers who are very dedicated to cow comfort and cow management—that’s where you see the really good and happy cows.

Is there any relationship between how humans feel and how the animals either feel or are treated?
That has a huge impact, and there actually have been studies to show that really we feed off of each other. When you have a really close working relationship, which is what farmers and their cattle have, you see that how the producer feels will impact the cattle and their productivity. So, if a producer has very negative interactions with his animals you see that they are less likely to let their milk down in the parlor and that decreases their productivity. On the other hand, you can also have feedback the other way; if you have sickness and a disease outbreak, and I often see this with many farmers, there’s concern about depression and anxiety in the producer because these animals that many of the farmers are quite closely bonded with are sick. They don’t enjoy going to the farm as much and it’s very upsetting for them to have their livestock ill. You can have feedback both ways.

Can you tell us a bit about your research priorities?
One of my first priorities is to look at sickness behavior. My research project is twofold. One aspect is to try to identify when is the optimal time to look for sick animals, and two, what are their behaviors and how can we train people who are not familiar with dairy cattle to identify sick calves.
What we really find in the changing dynamics on farms is that there are a lot of people who have not grown up on a farm who are handling the animals on a day-to-day basis. If we can move beyond, “Look at that animal. Can’t you tell she’s sick?” to “Okay. Look at this animal. Perhaps her back is arched, she is lying down, she’s slower to get up.” What are some behaviors where we can say, “This is what a sick animal is doing very precisely.” We can then improve disease detection and prevent disease outbreaks by identifying the sick animal early to prevent the spread of disease.

You want to put some very objective measures on what that looks like.
Yes, exactly, and perhaps developing a score sheet so we can say, “Okay, if you see these one, two or three behaviors in dairy calves, go and take a closer look at them and do a physical exam.”

One of your colleagues, dairy science professor Pam Ruegg, took pictures of dirty cows. They’re the most remarkable four pictures: here’s a very, very dirty cow, here’s a somewhat dirty cow, here’s a somewhat cleaner cow, and here’s a clean cow. It’s as simple as it could be.
Yes, and that’s really the simplicity that I’d like to develop for identifying sickness behavior. This is what a sick cow looks like—and surprisingly, for people who haven’t grown up around cattle, and even for some people who have grown up around cattle, that’s a very difficult thing to identify. You start to see them as a whole group rather than the individuals and how those behaviors are different.

We’ve just opened a remodeled, state-of-the-art Dairy Cattle Center here on campus. What excites you the most about this facility?
In terms of cow comfort, I’m really excited about the changes in stall design. The previous barn was built in 1956 and our knowledge of what cows need and want for their comfort has advanced substantially in that time. An example is the size of the stalls, which have been considerably enlarged to accommodate the larger Holstein cows we are using today compared to the smaller breeds used in the 1950s. We have also improved our handling facilities so that they are designed with cattle behavior in mind. This allows for lower stress and safer handling of cattle for both people and the animals. In the summer months, the cows should be much more comfortable as we have also focused on cooling the air in the summer. Cattle prefer cooler temperatures and during the summer they can experience heat stress. The new ventilation system will allow us to keep the cows much more comfortable.

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Posted in Living Science, Summer 2013 |