I heard an interesting debate about the breeding of dairy cows on Radio 4’s Farming Today programme this morning, which examined how breeding for higher milk yields has impacted on the health and wellbeing of modern dairy cows. You can listen to the radio programme here.
Advances in cattle breeding have given farmers the opportunity to carefully select desirable traits in cattle, to improve the performance of their animals. But, we have learnt that too much focus on productivity can be counterproductive in other areas and gains in milk yield, for example, may be offset by a reduction in fertility and longevity. It is more difficult to evaluate the financial benefits of good health and fertility in dairy cows than the simple measure of more litres in the tank. But, I have been putting up figures in front of farming audiences for a number of years to illustrate the value of these other attributes associated with robust cows.
Although some concerns were raised by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) in a report called Opinion on the Welfare of the Dairy Cow, published in 2009, I cannot find any specific guidelines on the ethical breeding of dairy cows. I think it is important we understand our responsibility towards safeguarding the health and wellbeing of cows, not just in terms of how we manage them on a day to day basis but, also, in our selection of genetics and I question whether it is right to breed a cow that can no longer sustain itself at grass in the summer months. We should strive for balance and seek to harness the natural attributes of the bovine species, rather than manipulate it to the point where it loses the capacity to thrive in something akin to its natural environment.
So, what about the question “Do we breed cows for a system or design a system to suit the cows?” Well, I think that we breed cows for a system. During my lifetime, the emphasis has been on pushing for higher output on dairy farms and this has been facilitated largely by advances in ruminant nutrition and genetic selection. The high costs associated with intensive farming mean that greater output is required to cover these costs and leave the operator with a margin. Breeding cows for high milk yields is an important tool in making such a system profitable. However, some farmers are now going to the other end of the spectrum and selecting genetics from small dairy breeds like the Jersey to develop low cost / low output systems. To my mind, if we are to develop profitable systems that safeguard the health and wellbeing of our cows we need something in the middle. After all, nature is always about keeping things in balance.