Dairy cattle housing

Dairy cow housing has made significant progress in recent decades. Many people farming today can recall when dairy cattle were routinely kept by being tied at the neck in stalls. Unfortunately, progress is required on a continual basis as not only are cattle changing over time as new breeding techniques allow us to alter their physiology - the milking cow of today is a larger animal to the cow of 40 years ago - but as society's attitudes change there may be significant pressures to increase perceived welfare standards for housed dairy cattle.

The Farm Animal Welfare Council's Five Freedoms were devised to define how livestock should be kept in the UK:

1.    Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.

2.    Freedom from Discomfort: by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.

3.    Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease: by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.

4.    Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour: by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind.

5.    Freedom from Fear and Distress: by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

While these conditions are relevant to livestock husbandry as a whole, they have a particular relevance to the housing conditions under which dairy cattle are kept, particularly as cows are often now housed year-round and average herd size increases and the possibility of 'super dairies' exists.

Housing needs to be planned with care to avoid situations where animal welfare is compromised, which will reduce cows' productivity and render them more prone to disease. Confinement and the increased humidity levels found in livestock housing will lead to increased concentrations of disease-causing pathogens, particularly those which cause mastitis.

The materials cows regularly come into contact with, such as bedding, water and food, need to be managed to remove as much potential of infection as possible. Floor surfaces need to provide good levels of grip, so that cows are less likely to slip, fall over and cover teats and udders in muck that contains large numbers of pathogens.

Under many farm conditions it is not possible to house the milking herd away from the sight and sound of the parlour - particularly where cubicle housing and milking parlour are situated in a single wide-span modern building, but housing milking cows near the areas from which they receive milk let-down stimuli can result in increased milk leakage when cows are lying in cubicles, potentially leading to higher mastitis rates. Dry cows should certainly be housed separately away from such stimuli.

Hygiene Scoring is used to measure the effectiveness of cattle housing and grazing management on general cow cleanliness and hygiene.