Can we have our cake and eat it?

I found an interesting article on the website Dairy Herd Network www.dairyherd.com which provides a lot of news on the US dairy industry.

Nigel Cook, the incoming President of The American Association of Bovine Practitioners, manages the Dairyland Initiative Programme at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. The Dairyland Initiative was launched in 1999 with a website providing information to help farmers develop better facilities for their cows.

Nigel Cook poses the question “can we have our cake and eat it too”? In this case, he is referring to high milk production and healthy cows and he explains “With the increasing productivity and intensification of our farms, comes increased scepticism from consumers and those that act on their behalf”.

A recent assessment of the levels of lameness in 66 herds in Wisconsin has shown results comparable with surveys completed in grazing herds and about half the prevalence of lameness found in the first survey of confined herds in 2000. From this Mr Cook suggests that operators of confined herds in Wisconsin are indeed “enjoying their cake”. Of course, such improvements in lameness are to be applauded and can only be good for the cows and the farmers. But, is the evidence his team have gathered really enough to conclude that we can have our cake and eat it too?

Simple measures of health and welfare are valuable because they can be easily measured. But, unfortunately, those concerned with promoting the mass production of cheap food want to maintain a narrow focus on outcome measures like lameness and mastitis, because they can be addressed in intensive systems. As a result we are not getting a comprehensive assessment of cow health and welfare. What about metabolic disorders, infertility, longevity and the amount of freedom provided for cows?

New technology is constantly being developed to help cows ‘survive’ the pressure of high milk yields and overcome challenges to health and welfare in intensive systems. This approach to safeguarding the needs of our cows sits nicely with messages about the need for sustainable intensification. As Nigel Cook says at the end of the Dairy Herd Network article, “if we are serious about feeding the world’s growing population, we will need to house dairy cattle in operations such as the ones we visited”. So, in short, let’s tick the box for lameness and that gives us the green light for industrial milk production.

We can have our cake and eat it but the pasture-based systems we use in the UK are the best way to ensure all concerned get equal sized slices.

 

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