How can we measure animal welfare in dairy farms?

There are over 23 million cows producing milk across the European Union, the largest milk producer of the world. Over the last fifty years, dairy farming has become more intensive to increase the amount of milk produced. At the same time, concerns about animal welfare and health are increasing. Consumers request for better welfare for dairy cows and producers want to have a better knowledge of the welfare status of their animals in order to detect problems that could affect production efficiency.

As animal welfare is a very complex concept, which can be affected by several independent factors, the EU Welfare Quality® (WQ) project defined four animal welfare principles: good feeding, good housing, good health and appropriate behaviour. The WQ project, for the first time, developed an assessment protocol to evaluate and monitor the quality of dairy cattle welfare on farm, based on indicators measurable directly on animals.  

Taking into account Welfare Quality® protocol for dairy cows and ClearFarm consultations with the main stakeholders of the industry, ClearFarm researchers selected a set of indicators for the different steps of the cow milk production processes: Acidosis, Activity, BCS, Body weight, Body temperature, Breathing (heat stress), Drinking, Eating, Estrus detection, Gait, Grazing, Lameness, Mastitis, Position, Predicting calving time, Resting, Rumination, Teat dimension, Temperature environment and 3D Body Measurements.

Simultaneously, researchers of the project studied non-invasive available sensor technology and biomarkers for automated and life-long monitoring of welfare of dairy cows. For instance, rumen boluses, accelerometers, electronic collars, 3D cameras or location sensors can monitor rumination, grazing, activity or social networks.

ClearFarm work now is to develop intelligent algorithms for each sensor providing information on the selected indicators. These algorithms will transform the data provided by the sensor manufacturer into objective data that, when combined with the project welfare experts –from Università degli Studi di Milano, Wageningen University and Autonomous University of Barcelona- will provide meaningful information about welfare.

In November, eight pilot studies will start in large and small dairy farms of Finland, The Netherlands, Spain and Italy. The studies will collect data from the sensors, together with animal-based indicators, indicators related to management and resources at individual level and at herd level and samples for biomarkers.