HAMBURG — It’s good to have a clear conscience about breakfast, so when the yogurt container or milk bottle pictures happy animals, it’s reassuring. Consumers frequently imagine happy cows in lush pastures and roomy stalls where everything is good. But that’s only part of the truth.
To meet organic and animal rights standards, farmers are required to have experts verify that they meet certain standards, but they don’t include a measure of the animal’s happiness. “The examiners only look at the stalls, not the stall residents,” explains Jan Brinkmann, from the Thünen Institute for Organic Agriculture.
And that’s precisely what Brinkmann and his colleagues would like to change. They are working with consumer economic researchers at the Thünen Institute to create new animal welfare criteria for milk production. “The organic associations in Germany have a major interest in it,” says Angela Bergschmidt, one of these experts. But the knowledge should fit in with guidelines for several monetary awards from the EU that are meant to encourage good conditions for the animals.
Some German regions, such as Nordrhein-Westfalen and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, offer monetary awards for farmers whose cows are allowed into pasture every day between June 1 and Oct. 1. Constructing “particularly humane” stalls can also lead to additional subsidies. These “extra humane” stalls must provide each cow with at least five square meters of room, and include an area for the cow to lie down and a place for eating. “These are not particularly strict requirements,” Bergschmidt says.
Researching milk cow illnesses
Organic cows already enjoy more comfort than average, but even the best guidelines for stall size and pasture access don’t guarantee a happy herd. Even the most comfortable cows can suffer from mastitis or other illnesses. And then happy cow time is over.
These health problems are by no means unusual. In Germany, between 30% and 50% of all cows suffer from mastitis at least once a year. Around the same number become crippled. And around 30% get ketosis, a metabolic disorder that causes energy loss. “Affected animals feel something like we do when we have a hangover,” says Brinkmann. Organic cows have these problems about as often as conventional cows, although they need less medication to become healthy again.
“We know much more about these so-called production illnesses than we did a couple years ago,” Brinkmann says. And many producers have improved both herd management and the stalls.
Improvements don’t seem to make healthier cows
It’s obvious, for example, that the lie boxes need to be soft. Otherwise, settling down, standing up and even the act of lying in the stall are torturous for the animals. Cows’ joints support 650 to 700 kilos, and if the cows don’t have a proper place to rest, their joints can swell to the size of a soccer ball and then become severely damaged. The animals often refuse to lie down on an uncomfortable spot.
But neither is too much standing good for the cows, because it is equally hard on their joints and hooves. Many conventional farms have plastic mattresses in the lie boxes that the cows can comfortably lie on. Organic farms are supposed to have straw padding for the same reasons.
“Despite all of these improvements in the animals’ conditions, the herds have not been getting healthier,” says Brinkmann. He explains that because modern cow breeds have been bred for ever-increasing production, they are that much more demanding. As soon as the smallest condition is imperfect, health problems arise.
Brinkmann compares the ideal life of a high-production cow to a Sunday brunch: Everyone spends most of the time comfortably sitting down, feeling good and full. But since everything tastes so good, they get up from time to time to get some more food. “It’s relatively challenging to organize a perfect cow-brunch every day,” Brinkmann says. “Something is bound to go wrong.”
Even more interesting are the indicators that can tell the farmers their weak spots in their animal care. Perhaps herd health could be markedly improved through different food or better hygiene, improved hoof care or other management techniques. “We can also give farmers awards when the indicators show particularly happy and healthy animals,” Bergschmidt says.
The question is, what should be measured? Scientists have established a massive catalog of indicators for animal well-being and health. As part of the enormous EU project “Welfare Quality,” that knowledge has been transferred into handbooks for keeping cows, pigs and poultry. The criteria established in those handbooks is considered the gold standard in humane animal husbandry.
“By the time you’ve checked all the indicators, you have easily spent eight hours on the farm,” says Angela Bergschmidt. No organic association can afford to spend that kind of time, and it’s also too much for any government-sponsored incentive program. Bergschmidt and her colleagues are now trying to create a smaller, condensed catalog of criteria, which will be more practical for both farmers and inspectors.
A practical catalog of cow happiness
The new system of measuring bovine happiness will involve collecting information that is already recorded on farms, such as monthly milk output. This will allow farmers to assess and control each one of their cows. In addition to the amount, the quality of the milk will also be assessed.
Some of these indicators say quite a lot about animal well-being. For example, if the milk is found to have a high number of cells from the udder, that is a a sign of undiagnosed mastitis.
In addition to milk-quality data, researchers have established other criteria for happy animals. They include the percentage of the herd that suffers from joint problems or have to be treated for mastitis. They are currently testing the new criteria and guidelines on 150 farms.
Whether the inspectors will be able to take all of their measurements in less than four hours, and how the farmers will handle these assessments are questions that will be answered over the course of the winter.
After all, it’s not so easy to recognize happy cows.