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Dairy cows housing environment an integral part of the herd health, welfare and biosecurity

Published on: 4/1/2022
Author/s : Pavel Novák, Gabriela Malá Institute of Animal Science Prátelství 815, 104 00 Prague Uhríneves, Czech Republic +420605783765; novak.pavel@email.cz
The knowledge of living conditions are needed to give farmers the information they need to evaluate management practices and determine which technological system provides the high level of a farm animal welfare as a prerequisite for health of animals. The high level of the environmental hygiene in stables and biosecurity on the farm is the first step to the health of the animal and the background for the high level of productivity.
Good management practices on the dairy farm result in healthy animals, maximum production and high quality milk. The final results are: increased profitability for the dairy producer and a safe product for the consumer (Hinckley et al.,1994).
Optimal environmental conditions are essential for animals to reach their genetic potential. Achievement of the expected production and reproductive performance is possible only in individuals with a good genetic basis at the appropriate level of nutrition, housed in optimal conditions of rearing environment. Housing design stable microclimatic condition, nutrition and management practices have impact not only on health but also on the level of welfare. Human-animal interaction affects the productivity and welfare of dairy cows. A negative relation between the stockmanship and cows increases the likelihood of aggressive handling, which results in a fear, stress, reduced welfare and productivity (Rushen, 2008; Grandin, 1998).
Prevention of new infections and elimination of existing infections are the main objectives of biosecurity. Farm biosecurity programs are developed for a herd using knowledge of the characteristics of pathogens infections the herd is most at risk such as: the milk quality objectives, the facility design, current management practices, concurrent diseases, housing environmental conditions, and labour availability. Due to the fact, that pest can transmit diseases and cause discomfort is the pest control one component of an overall dairy herd health program.
A regular schedule of disinfection, manure removal and bedding changes minimizes pathogens in the environment and helps to control the spread of disease. Cleanliness and proper waste management provide animals with a clean, dry and comfortable environment. Manure and dirty bedding are sources of contamination that can lead to mastitis (Cook, 2004).
Ensuring the comfortable living conditions for cows in the field of welfare, health and biosecurity improves fertility, yield, longevity and disease resistance, as well as reduced the production costs and increase labour productivity and economical rentability of the farm.
The work is focused on the analysis of the importance of individual components of rearing environment with respect for the welfare, health and biosecurity of dairy cows.
Material and Methods
This study was based on the analysis of selected welfare, health and biosecurity indicators of dairy cows. The selection of indicators, methods of measurement and their evaluation will be used in different dairy cows production technological systems (housing environment, feeding, drinking, removing of excrements, ventilation). Individual indicators were evaluated by simple 3-point scale (1-low level,2-midle level, 3-high level). Each critical control point is given by the sum of points for each character.
Results and Discussion 
Evaluating the level of welfare will be focused on the area of housing (living environment – microlimate, resting and moving activity), nutrition (feed, water, supplements), health (herd health management, disease prevention, injury reduction) and behaviour (natural and abnormal behaviour, stress reduction, human-animal interaction). When determining the critical control points for evaluation of animal health, it will be used from records of production and reproduction performance in monitored farms divided to following areas: trias (respiration rate, heart rate, body temperature), external confirmation (body condition score, body surface (hair, skin,..), eye, ears, muzzle, legs), physical condition (body posture and movement, feed and water intake, excrement and urine excretion), zootechnical and veterinary evidence (production, reproduction, morbidity, mortality).
In the context of assessing the level of biosecurity will be collected and analysed critical control points aimed at preventing penetration of infectious agents to the farm by people (regulation of entry and movement, hygiene circle and disinfection mats, repairs, maintenance and alarm system), animals (protection zones, veterinary protection zones, breeding system), wild animals (farm/stable protection, insect and rodent control), technological systems (housing, feeding and watering, ventilation, lighting, milking, wastes handling), health management (evidence recording, prophylaxis and sanitation), transport (animals, feeding, bedding, wastes).
Housing conditions (stall design, type of flooring, feeding and watering system stocking density) have a significant impact on the dairy cattle welfare. Cattle should be housed under conditions, which are in the harmony to health, welfare a biosecurity (Rushen, 2008). All technological systems should allow the housing animals express natural behaviour and be designed to avoid suffering from pain, fear, injury or distress (The National Farm Animal Care Council, 2009). The behaviour of dairy cows depends on the interaction between the cows and their physical environment. The physical factors of the facility (stall design, flooring type, feed bunk design, environmental quality) impose baseline limitations on how the cows will interact with the housing conditions. Within these limitations, the ability of cows to engage in natural behaviours is further dictated by management routines such as grouping strategy and stocking density (Krawczel and Grant, 2009). High group cows in pens have a significant negative influence on overall herd average conception rate.
From the point of microclimatic condition dairy cattle are able to tolerate the low temperatures better than high temperatures (Anonymus, 2008). Thermal comfort and good air quality are very important for the health and well-being of the dairy cow. During the heat stress period the cows reduced feed intake, increased water intake, simultaneously changed metabolic rate and maintenance requirements (Armstrong, 1994). Schefers (2008) found that the most important factors for cooling the cow, lowering humidity in the barn and improving conception rates during the hot summer period were: lowering stocking density in the breeding pen, providing sufficient air exchange in the holding area, reducing time spent in the holding area and the parlour and providing fans over the resting area.
Due to the fact, that the cows spend more than 12 hours of a day lying down, uncomfortable stalls dimension and design (lying boxes, floor surface) have influence not only on the frequency of the injuries and mastitis, but also on the quality of milk. In all production systems cattle need a well-drained and comfortable place to rest. All cattle in a group should have sufficient space to lie down and rest at the same time. Lying boxes or straw bedded area with excessive faecal accumulation or wet bedding are not suitable for dairy cow resting. Due to the fact that the body length of cows has increased over the years; some older cubicles are too short for today’s large cows. This forces them to lie or stand with their back legs in the passageway. If the lying area in the cubicles does not provide a suitable surface cows can suffer sores and abrasions.
Increasing production cows need to spend more time eating and have less time available for other activities, and may not be able to allocate time enough to fulfill their need for important activities such as resting.
Feeding practices and feeding management have an effect on the health and welfare because the hungry cattle have reduced the immune function (Rushen, 2008). Water quality (e.g. polluted by urine, manure, algae) affects water consumption. Stocking density affects feeding behaviour of cows. Greater aggression and displacements of cows causes that time of eating is shifted. Cows also take fewer meals.
Floors of corridors should be designed to minimise slipping and falling, promote foot health, and reduce the risk of claw injuries. Cows spending more time on hard concrete surfaces on wet manure contaminated alleys are more sensitive to foot diseases (Cook, 2002). The incidence of lameness on observed dairy farms ranges from 20 to 30 %. Most lame cows are in pain and have greater difficulty in coping with their living conditions than non-lame cows because of the effects of the foot or leg disorder on walking, lying comfort and standing up. The lame cows are more likely to become subordinate in pens social hierarchy (EFSA, 2009). Appropriately designed handling and restraint facilities enhance animal welfare while reducing stress and injuries. 
Reduced space per cow and high stocking density in pens can increase aggression at feed bunk, drinkers and lying boxes, reduced resting time, increased standing time of dairy cows in alleys.
Mastitis is a common, painful disease caused by multiple factors. Cows with mastitis show a withdrawal from normal behaviour and changes include reduced lying, an increased preference for lying on one side, more walking and weight-shifting, and higher reactivity and restlessness during milking (Medrano-Galarza et al., 2012). The lowest incidences of mastitis and somatic cell counts occur in herds with clean cows and bedding. Cleanliness scoring of dairy cattle is a tool for measuring environmental cleanliness and the relative risks for high somatic cell counts and diseases like mastitis (Cook, 2004). Regular sanitation and bedding is essential namely for the calving area.
Light is a primary condition of life and as such is an important environmental factor for dairy cows. There are minimum light levels required for both general inspection and welfare, respectively. Longitude of adequate lighting is 16 hours of light continuously each day. Adequate lighting increases milk production from +5 % to +16 % and feed intake up 6 %. Enhanced lighting levels may be required for stimulation of milk yield for the cows or for more visually demanding tasks for the stockmen. In such cases, higher lighting levels may have to be provided in some areas for a specific time. On the other hand inadequate (low) lighting increases incidence of reproductive disorders by 15 % and reduces the immunity of the cows. Continuous lighting disrupts the rhythmicity and periodicity of hormonal activity. There is also an increased the incidence of unnatural behaviours of cows (Rushen, 2008; EFSA, 2009).
Natural ventilation is the most efficient and cheapest system of air exchange which is able to provide an optimum environment condition in stables for dairy cows, remove the excess heat (hot summer climate) and water vapour (cold winter climate) form stables, followed by decreasing the amount of microorganisms, dust and gases in the indoor air together with the uniform distribution of air. In winter time, insufficient ventilation leads to high humidity of the animal house air, moist stall conditions, wet skin, uncomfortable conditions such as draught and poor surface and air hygiene. When the air exchange is too low, the concentration of airborne micro-organisms including pathogens, dust and manure gases are rising in a building. Unsatisfactory ventilation increases the likelihood of mastitis and even the spread of respiratory disorders causing poor health and loss of production (Novak et al., 2003; Wathes, 1992). The ideal ventilation depends on the type of barn, the size, the number of animals to be housed and the season.
The whole conception must go out from using adequate technological systems, housing parameters and microclimatic condition. Animals have the ability to adapt to a significant degree to their environments, including painful or stressful ones, although the adaptation may be accompanied by severe stress.
Prevention of diseases of farm animals is a prerequisite for ensuring good health and performance of animals housed and achieving economic profitability of breeding and the quality of the final products. Maintaining mutual balance between animal health, environment and production should be based on fulfilling the basic needs of livestock (welfare) and the principles of biosecurity.
The study was supported by the Ministry of Agriculture Project NAZV No. QJ1530058.
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