GREEN BAY — Producers, consumers, corporate buyers and others all have a stake in dairy production, albeit often with different priorities.
That’s where scientists like Dr. Jennifer Van Os enter the equation, serving as bridges between those groups, especially when discussions shift to animal welfare and the importance of behavioral well-being.
Van Os, an assistant professor and UW-Extension animal welfare specialist at UW-Madison’s Department of Dairy Science, recently shared her presentation, “Good Welfare Across the Life Cycle: Providing Opportunities for Important Behaviors,” during workshops sponsored by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.
Her 55-minute session concluded with four take-home messages:
• Social science research shows consumers care about animals’ behavioral well-being. “So not just is she healthy, thriving and productive, but does she have the chance to be a cow in their view,” Van Os said.
• Biological science research can tell us about what is important from the animal’s perspective. “What do they actually care about so we’re not putting them in a situation that people might like but that cows don’t like,” she said.
• Improving some behavioral opportunities allows dairy production practices to align with consumers’ values. She cited studies focusing on the use of grooming brushes and varying degrees of outdoor access.
• Improving some behavioral opportunities creates win-wins for cattle health and performance. She illustrated this point with examples of secluded calving areas and social housing for pre-weaned calves.
Discussions revolving around animal welfare have been increasing, Van Os said, “but it’s not that new and it’s definitely not something that’s going away.”
Animal welfare is necessary for the “social license” to continue producing food. She elaborated, saying, “To continue to operate, the consumer has to find not only your product to be palatable but also the way it’s produced. This can include factors like food safety, which is very tangible to the product itself, but also things such as how are the workers treated, what’s the environmental impact of the operation and also how are the animals treated.”
In regard to studying animal welfare, the biological science perspective “is a way to give the cow a voice,” Van Os said. “This is really important, because it’s not just about asking what people think is right for animals — that’s the social science part — but really what does the cow think.”
Van Os discussed about animal welfare utilizing a three-circles framework adopted from David Fraser. Those circles are body, mind and nature, which partially overlap each other.
The body involves aspects of biological functioning, “so you could term this their bodily health,” she said, relating it to production, growth and reproduction, among other things.
The mind has to do with the animal’s psychological well-being, Van Os said.
“What we’re really getting at here is that research has shown animals have the ability to have positive and negative experiences,” she said. “We’re not saying animals are like people, and we’re not saying they have complex human emotions.
“But it’s really important to acknowledge that we have been able to validate the fact that animals like cattle can feel pain. So we want to try to minimize those negative experiences like pain, fear, frustration and provide opportunities for them to experience positive feelings like contentment or pleasure.”
The third circle, nature, is perhaps better called behavioral well-being, she said.
“What we’re saying is we have to understand the needs of each species,” Van Os said. “This involves understanding what’s normal or natural behavior to that species, but just because something is natural or normal doesn’t mean it’s important for welfare, so we have to evaluate what’s actually important to them.”
In relation to social science, producers and consumers generally recognize the three circles of animal welfare “but the difference is really where people put their priorities,” Van Os said.
“So people more directly involved with production often place the concept of bodily health first, which makes sense because that’s where production and health fall. Whereas people who aren’t involved in farming and are on the consumer side more often have questions about these other aspects of welfare, especially this idea of natural-ness.”
She said non-farmers often inquire if farm animals have outdoor access, whether they have opportunities to perform a wide range of behaviors and have space to move around, and if they have social companionship.
“If we go back to this concept of social license, it’s important to at least recognize that people are concerned about these issues,” Van Os said. “Because if they are going to support the product going forward, we need to recognize they have some concerns about the process with which we’re raising the animals.”
Van Os said research conducted in focus groups reveals the greatest gaps are in behavioral well-being.
“The idea that came out of these focus groups is that there is a way to try to close the gap by thinking about how to promote more of these behavioral opportunities,” she said.
Van Os talked in detail about four examples in which biological research has shown during the last decade how people can promote behavioral opportunities for dairy cattle, in particular, at different stages of their life cycle. Those studies included brushes for grooming, outdoor access, seclusion in the maternity area, and calves and social housing.