Farm size not necessarily a factor in animal welfare

Farm size influences different aspects of animal welfare in different ways but big is not necessarily bad, say researchers.

Concerns about the welfare of farm animals often revolve around the issue of farm size with many critics suggesting that animals on larger farms are less likely to receive individual attention and instead are treated only as units of production. Likewise, it is argued that the shift to larger farms results in a decline in standards of care and ultimately in the quality of life for animals.

 In a presentation at this week’s JAM 2013, D.M. Weary and M.AG. von Keyserlingk of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, outlined the historical background of this criticism, drawing parallels with the earlier debate over the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society.

It was also noted that farm size influences different aspects of animal welfare in different ways. In particular, larger farms may permit more specialized and professional management of animals that may in fact lead to better welfare conditions. Studies in the Northeast, California and even China have shown dairy cow lameness to be much less of an issue on farms with 3,000 cows versus smaller farms.

Weary noted that advantages to large farms are that they tend to have more specialized staff and more structured training, more formal standard operating procedures (SPOs) and the ability to offer performance incentives to get foster employee buy-in and compliance.

At the same time, Weary said, large farms might be wise to look at how to possibly incorporate pasture access as a standard procedure. This is a welfare touch point for consumers that the industry may be wise to consider, he said, noting that research has shown free-stalled dairy cows allowed pasture access generally stay indoors during the day and go outside at night. He noted there are ways to ensure that dairy cows still get the full nutritional value of a total mixed ration even when cows are grazed.

Increases in farm size provide opportunities to improve the welfare of farm animals, Weary said. That being so, he said, policy and advocacy efforts, instead of trying to reverse the increase in farm size, would be better directed toward generalizing the welfare benefits and minimizing the risks. Likewise, Weary said, researchers should be objectively addressing new technological advances that present a welfare benefit to dairy cows. Just because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean it is something that shouldn't be considered, he said.

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