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Animal Welfare and Dairy Genomics: Attitude is Everything

Your parents may have told you to “lose the attitude”, but for an animal welfare perspective on applying genomics to dairy cows, it seems the more attitudes the better. That was certainly the case for a certain Masters student gathering producer views on animal care practices to help guide the Efficient Dairy Genome Project.

“I focused on attitudes towards farm animal welfare through qualitative research methods,” said Emilie Bassi, a Masters student in the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology at the University of Alberta.

Field work

To that end, Bassi spent time on dairy and beef cattle farms around Alberta interviewing producers and looking at the social aspects of animal husbandry practices: What causes some practices to change or not change and what are the implications for animal care?

One thing she learned early on is how complex animal welfare can be. To simplify things a bit, she narrowed it down to four practices, with two of the more contentious ones being de-budding (removal of the bud before it becomes a horn) and dehorning (removal of the horn after it is fully formed).

“The public doesn’t really understand these two procedures which are portrayed negatively in the media.”

On the horns of a dilemma

Although producers see de-budding and dehorning as improving animal welfare, Bassi found many of them were dissatisfied with the practices. And while that applied to both beef and dairy farmers, the chosen solutions were quite different.

“Beef producers leaned more towards polled genetics, to selecting and breeding cattle without horns to eradicate the practice of dehorning.”

By contrast, most of the dairy producers she interviewed were focusing on other aspects of genetics such as milk production. Rather than eliminating the need for dehorning, they stressed pain mitigation such as tranquilizers and saw this approach as a positive step for improving overall animal welfare.

One producer she met attributed the differing attitudes to the more intense, non-seasonal nature of dairy production, and Bassi’s experience would seem to support that.

Up close and personal

“Within their cultures of practice, there are significant differences between dairy and cow/calf producers. Dairy operations are characterized by greater frequency of interactions with the animals such as cleaning stalls and bringing them in to milk, whereas cow/calf activities are largely outdoors and seasonal. That may explain in part why polled genetics is not as widely embraced in the dairy business.”

Still, the reservations expressed by some dairy farmers and the targeting of dehorning by animal activists could have implications for future research efforts.

“Given how happy beef farmers are with polled genetics and its impact on animal welfare, this may be something that the dairy industry wants to consider more closely. There’s a lot of room to enhance welfare through genetics, so the research could be helpful for both producers and their animals. Practices relating to animal welfare are continually changing and many producers see genomics playing a role in improving those practices over time. ”

In spite of the differences, there’s one element common to both dairy and beef cattle producers that bodes well for the future of animal welfare: the role of emotion.

“I was pleasantly surprised at just how emotionally attached producers are to their animals and how that filters into everyday practices. It’s something that could serve as a strong catalyst for change when needed and make them more likely to embrace genetic progress.”

It’s an attitude that could serve researchers and industry well going forward, and one that even your parents would have loved.

Animal Welfare and Dairy Genomics: Attitude is Everything

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