By: Marielena Moncada, Ph.D., Zamorano´s Milk Chain Coordinator, Associate Professor of Dairy Cattle of the Agricultural Science and Production Department.
In the 1970s, such philosophers as Peter Singer and Arne Naess developed ideas about animal welfare that eventually led to the creation of social movements and the formation of animal rights groups (Hadjisterkotis, 2009). Today, the consumer has a greater awareness when choosing the food products he or she consumes, and considers animal welfare as part of the quality of the food (Kjaernes and Keeling, 2009). This is why the consumer shows greater interest in knowing about such aspects as the origin of food, respect and care for animals destined for food production, and the sustainability of food products in all phases of production.
The food industry has also seen that the issue of animal welfare can be used to give added value to the food produced (Velarde and Dalmau, 2012). Therefore, certification programs such as Global GAP have been created, which standardize production procedures and allow the consumer to know from where his or her food derives, as well as whether it was produced in a conscious and sustainable way (Sonoda, 2018). Due to the importance given to the subject in these times, many other certification and training programs have been formed that ensure that food is produced with sustainability and animal welfare in mind.
Milk is a very important nutritious food in the human diet. There are many aspects to consider in order to obtain good quality milk, including nutritional, handling, animal health and hygienic aspects when milking (Vélez et al. 2009). However, animal welfare is often ignored, although the issue has long been recognized. Nevertheless, it is gaining popularity today. In the past, animal welfare was focused on the fulfillment of the “five freedoms”, which stipulate that animals must be free from hunger, thirst and malnutrition; free from discomfort, free from fear and anguish; free from danger, injury and illness; and free to express their normal and natural behavior (American Humane, 2016; OIE, 2019). These freedoms are based on the fact that there is a very close relationship between the health of the animal, its welfare and production, and eventually the welfare of consumers.
Welfare Quality®, a project founded by the European Union, has defined four principles of animal welfare that integrate the welfare of farm animals into the food chain while considering consumer demands, social expectations and the development of on-farm evaluation systems. (Velarde and Dalmau, 2012). These four principles are: good facilities, good nutrition, good health, and proper behavior (Kjaernes and Keeling, 2009). These principles follow twelve criteria to ensure the health of the animal, including: the animal should not suffer from prolonged hunger or thirst; must have comfort when resting, have thermal comfort and enough space to be able to move freely, must be free from physical injuries and diseases; and should not suffer pain caused by mishandling, slaughter, or surgical procedures. In addition, within the twelve criteria the animal must be free to express its normal behavior, it must be well handled in all situations, and the feelings of fear, stress and frustration must be avoided, but rather positive emotions of security be promoted (Kjaernes and Keeling, 2009). Through these criteria, it is understood that much of what the animal is experiencing from day to day affects its physical and mental well-being. Therefore, these criteria should be taken seriously in the production of milk.
Poor housing conditions can cause problems in animal welfare (Albright and Arave, 2002). In general, a cow with optimal daily behavior should spend 3 to 5 hours daily consuming between 9 and 14 meals. She should devote 7 to 10 hours to rumination, 30 minutes a day to drink water, approximately 10 hours per day to rest, and 2 to 3 hours to milking (Grant and Albright 2001).
The time that cattle dedicate to rest can be equal to, or more important than the behavior related to feeding (Moncada-Laínez and Hsia, 2004). Grandin et al. (2016) mention that the animal’s rest period should be between 10 and 12 hours a day, since when lying down, rumination is optimized with the correct production of saliva, which reduces the risks of ruminal acidosis. Similarly, the udder receives better irrigation compared to a cow that spends a lot of time standing. In this way, foot problems such as ischemia in the hooves, are avoided and competition among animals for comfortable places is reduced. On the other hand, an adult cow has a four-hour MRO (rapid eye movement) sleep in which she is totally relaxed, being an indicator that the animal is correctly adapted to its environment (Grandin et al. 2016).
When a significant biological or environmental change occurs in the cow, the comfort and health of the animal is put at risk, which means that the presence or absence of stress is an indicator of animal welfare (Phillips, 2002). The main factors that can affect the cattle are:
-environmental changes, such as temperature and humidity
-lifestyle, such as facilities and overcrowding
-management, such as in the case of transport
-nutrition, such as hunger and thirst, diseases and surgical factors
(Odeón and Romera 2017).
In addition to disturbing the welfare of animals, stress affects the immune system and makes the animal more susceptible to diseases, and reduces food intake, among others. Therefore, the impact that stress can have on production, reproduction and health is strong and broad (Tucker et al. 2020).
In fact, any element that hinders the life of an animal is a stress factor, which reduces the available energy that goes to the immune system (Fraser and Broom, 2002). Over time, stress ends up lowering the defenses of the animals, and indirectly, leads to poorer health and milk quality (Vélez et al. 2009). For this reason, the state of the immune system is used as a good indicator of chronic stress in animals. Finally, each stress factor a cow has to deal with involves an energy cost that diverts energy from other organic functions. An animal with better health will produce a higher quality milk, with lower somatic cell counts (Revilla, 2009). Therefore, the more an animal has to adapt to its environment, the less milk, and of poorer quality, it will produce.
That is why we must observe cow behavior. The main indicator of animal welfare is when cows express normal behavior. If we are providing animal welfare, they will be stress-free and produce more and better quality milk, because the better the cow is, the better her milk will be.
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