We need to talk about cow welfare: what does the science say?

‘What we are saying is that the environment influences the emotional state and this is an important component of welfare’

As marketing goes, having Beyonce and Jay Z on your side is the stuff of dreams. To the delight of vegans, the pair took to social media recently to promote their vegan meal company, 22 Days Nutrition, in a bid to turn the world away from meat and dairy.

The influential duo are knocking on an open door. Veganism is on the rise. Iconic drinks like Baileys are selling dairy-free alternatives. As more people dip their toes into a meat-free and dairy-free life – unsure if they will fully commit, but open to it – a focus is put on animals, particularly cows, and how they’re farmed.

Scientific research on cow welfare in Ireland is limited. Dr Gareth Arnott, of the school of biological sciences in Queen's University Belfast, says that only a small number of scientists are dedicated to welfare; the focus has been on health and dairy production rather than quality of the animal's life.

Common indicators of welfare problems are health-based, such as lameness and inflammation of the udders (both causing severe pain), leg injuries and low body weight. “But we need to look beyond health and talk about quality of life,” says Arnott. “Emotion is a controversial subject but we need to find a way to objectively measure it. It’s a big move.”


We know cows lead complex emotional lives. Research from top welfare scientist Prof Daniel Weary, of the University of British Columbia, shows dairy calves express feelings, have individual personality differences and can be inherently optimistic or pessimistic. "It's all about the individual," he says. "Individual farmers have responsibility for individual animals."

Arnott wants to understand how different farming methods – eg cows housed indoors or on grass – influence their emotions. “We could then go beyond that to look at other variables such as how lameness, or levels of production, affect their mood. What we are saying is that the environment influences the emotional state and this is an important component of welfare.”

Irish dairying has shot up in size since the EU allowed unlimited milk production in 2015. To prepare for this, the government enlisted the industry to help write an ambitious expansion plan and public money poured in to make it happen. Irish dairy is now a major player (producing 12 per cent of global infant formula) and in the past four years cow numbers have increased by 300,000.

Fewer farmers are now milking more cows. In the 1980s, the average herd size on Ireland’s 70,000 dairy farms was 18 cows. With 18,000 farms left, that number will soon be 102 cows. Many farmers now manage 200-300 cows – some have more than 1,000 – and this rapid change, together with a labour shortage, has led to questions about how cow welfare can be guaranteed.

In 2016, the Department of Agriculture conducted 90 dairy farm welfare inspections. Of these, 32 were fully compliant with minimum legal standards. A recent EU audit of dairy farms raised concerns about tail-docking of cows and it urged Irish authorities to increase awareness of this illegal practice.

In 2015, Laois farmer John McHugh changed the way he farmed. He had expanded from 30 to 160 cows but decided to half his herd size to 80 animals. “As a 30-cow farmer I was much more aware of the individual, you’d even have names for them. When I was moving up in numbers to 160 animals, you’d have less time for problems like mastitis and lameness,” he said. “But with 80 cows, I can see the individual again, I can see that bit coming back”.

The cow has changed, too. In the past 40 years the amount of milk produced per cow has nearly doubled and half of this increase is due to genetic selection. The industry welcomes this, and it's arguably more environmentally efficient, but the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has warned genetic selection for high milk yield is a "major factor" causing poor welfare. "These cows are so highly selected for milk production that during lactation her feed won't meet her demand and she loses weight," Arnott adds. "Is this a welfare issue, trying to meet the welfare needs of a genetically altered cow?"

Although cows at grass have better welfare than those housed indoors, Prof Weary warns against assuming that once cows are outside all welfare issues are resolved. "The Irish brand is good, but it creates vulnerabilities," he says. "It's the same thing as the New Zealanders – they had a great brand until they saw the bull calves and what happens to them. It comes back in a very negative way." In 2016, an animal rights group in New Zealand released footage of unwanted male calves being thrown onto trucks, triggering a crisis for their industry.

The influential role of Teagasc was in the spotlight because of the deaths of cows and calves on one of its research farms in Kilkenny during Storm Emma. The dairy is part of Bord Bia's sustainable dairy assurance scheme and was set up in 2009 to show farmers how to produce milk from cows on grass in the most economic way possible.

What emerged during the storm were some of the vulnerabilities of a low-cost system, which includes roofless cubicles. Many dairy farmers expressed their anger on social media, saying the push to expand has come at too high a cost. A spokesperson for Teagasc said a review has been launched, added the farm has had a “very good” animal welfare record, though they declined to say how many animals died over the five-day storm.

Teagasc scientists warned of the dangers. In August, three researchers wrote an article about their “ProWelCow” project which looked at the risks from the intensification of the dairy industry since milk quotas were scrapped. They surveyed dairy stakeholders and all agreed that expansion and low-cost production has resulted in more potential threats than benefits to cow welfare.

The researchers found that overcrowding and cow lameness are all causes of welfare issues in expanding low-cost systems, and that poor financial viability and mental health issues of farmers are additional risks for animals. Prof Alison Hanlon, a scientist in UCD's vet school, said that it is a "really important" piece of research and urged the Department of Agriculture, who funded it, to publish the data in full.

The milk market is volatile and scientists agree animal welfare is inextricably linked to the welfare of farmers. Three major dairy processors recently cut the milk price paid to farmers. According to the Irish Farmers Journal, if all processors follow their lead the average dairy farm will experience a €6,000 loss in yearly income.

“Twenty years ago a farmer with 60 cows could live comfortably and rear a family, but to obtain the same objective today they have to double the number of cows,” says Westmeath vet Sean O’Laoide, who sits on the farm animal advisory welfare council.

“With expansion we have longer walkways to the milking parlour, worse weather with climate change and people in their 50s and 60s working twice as hard,” he says, “the worry is that with farmers under enormous pressure this clearly has a potential impact on animal welfare.”

O’Laoide has concerns about the lack of scientific research on cow welfare and says more data is needed.

And what about the consumer? An EU survey in 2015 found 80 per cent of Irish respondents believed it was “very important” to safeguard the welfare of farmed animals and they also said that animal welfare should be better legally protected.

The ProWelCow scientists looked at welfare guarantees of private dairy assurance schemes and said only one scheme the RSPCA mark in the UK assures cow welfare. Last year, Marks & Spencer became the first major retailer to source all of its fresh milk from RSPCA-approved farms. Andrew Kelly, who heads the ISPCA, says he would like to see a similar labelling programme introduced in Ireland "to ensure that the highest possible, evidence-based welfare standards are employed".

While welfare is viewed as an essential component of the "green Ireland" brand, UCD scientist Prof Simon More (who also chairs the EFSA's animal health and welfare panel) stresses that marketing claims without peer-reviewed science are meaningless. "My suggestion is that if we are to make claims, we need to have robust evidence to support that."