Cattle welfare key to quality production

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MANY of the people I encounter these days often say to me: “…I read your articles on cattle with interest…. Yes, I have cattle, they are just there… but I always thought they were just cows! … I didn’t know how important they are…”
Perceptions of cattle and other farm animals’ welfare have the potential to markedly affect the sustainability of the livestock industry in Zimbabwe.
The importance of cattle to man cannot be overemphasised.
The health and welfare of cattle are closely linked to production, since healthy and contented animals are generally more productive. As well as a reduction in production, cattle kept in poor or chronically stressful conditions are more susceptible to disease, which usually reduces the quality of their end products.
Cattle with illnesses and injuries, particularly chronic ones, are classified as having ‘poor welfare’, and are more susceptible to illnesses as well as zoonotic diseases like tuberculosis, which can be transmitted to humans in the milk.
The internationally accepted definition of ‘animal welfare’ refers to an animal’s physical and mental state and its ability to cope with its given situation.
According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (Office International des Epizooties [OIE] 2013): “…an animal is in a good state of welfare if it is healthy, comfortable, well nourished, safe, able to express its innate behaviour, and is not suffering from negative states such as pain, fear and distress.”
Although acceptable interpretations of animal welfare can differ; influenced by many factors including personal values, religion, nationality, gender, previous experiences, age, socio-economic status and education, among others, it is generally acknowledged that good animal welfare requires disease prevention and veterinary treatment, appropriate shelter, management, nutrition, humane handling, transport and, eventually, humane slaughter.
Cattle also need to be able to express basic behaviours including lying down, turning around, scratching and displaying social behaviours to a reasonable degree.
As well as cattle, these concepts regarding animal welfare also apply to all animals that interact with humans, including agricultural, domestic companions such as dogs and cats, show animals like circus and zoo animals and those used in science, where scientific findings assist in the development of welfare assessment, practice and improvement.
Results of observations showed that cattle that did not receive daily exercise had an increased frequency of leg disorders, mastitis and calving disorders.
Suitable housing is among the more critical aspects of animal welfare. Here, flooring is considered to be one of the most important factors of welfare and health, especially for dairy cows’ housing.
While pasture provides not only a large area for grazing, it is the natural habitat for cattle; though cattle have adapted to stand, walk and lie down on various hard and soft surroundings.
They require surfaces with good traction for beneficial hoof wear and with a low presence of fecal bacteria.
Pasture-based systems for cattle are still common, especially for meat production and, in some parts of the world, it is also common for dairy cows.
In many countries, including Zimbabwe, most dairy cows are kept in mixed systems of both grazing and housing, most commonly with concrete floors due to its affordability, durability and ease of maintenance and cleanliness.
Poor housing not only affects the day-to-day comfort of the cattle, but also has follow-on effects to their health.
Good housing should also allow the animal to move without risk of injury. Cattle should be able to perform their normal activity at their normal gait on a floor which does not negatively affect the health of their hoofs and legs.
The use of concrete floors for dairy cattle has resulted in an increased frequency of hoof disorders and lameness in the dairy industry.
Making a proper floor system that is ergonomic, promotes normal movement, is slip-resistant and comfortable without undue challenges.
Over time, concrete surfaces become slippery due to chemical and mechanical wear-and-tear.
Quick movements on slippery floors increases the risk of slipping and falling, which could result in severe injuries and in worst cases, fatality.
Slippery floors make cattle behave more carefully, which negatively affects locomotion, general activity as well as social and sexual behaviours.
Concrete floors that are too rough and abrasive could also result in an unfavourable hoof wear-and-tear and in an increase of hoof disorders.
It has been found that certain floor types have a negative effect on the prevalence of cattle claw disorders and lameness. Hence the hygiene of the floors is important to maintain good health.
The presence of excess manure and moisture increases the risk of infectious agents and skin-disorders.
An epidemiological study in England recently showed the most common cause for lameness is claw disorders caused by diseases.
The same study found that the most common claw diseases that affected the horn capsule where sole ulcer (SU) and white-line disease (WLD). In dairy cattle, digital dermatitis (DD), sole haemorrhage (SH), heel horn erosion (HHE) and interdigital hyperplasia (IH) were the most frequent skin-diseases.
Several studies also found a significant association between the presence of white-line disease (WLD), sole ulcer (SU) and fertility performance.
Cows with severe cases of the diseases and those in early lactation had longer ‘days open’ compared with mild cases of WLD or SU, or cows in mid or late lactation.
One method to correct this is by ‘grooving’ the slippery concrete floors. Grooving provides more friction, which supports traction.
While the welfare of cattle and other animals is dynamic, dependent on changes in the animal’s health and environment, simple, fundamental factors ensure good welfare. These include good hygiene, having continuous access to clean water, stable social groups and the provision of preventive veterinary care.
Animal welfare and health is part of good animal and farm management and is directly related to sustainable livestock management and market assurances.
As cattle farmers, paying close attention to day-to-day management is one of the most important factors when determining acceptable animal welfare, especially at this time of the Command Livestock initiative by Government to increase the national herd.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and post-colonial heritage studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practicing artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher. E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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