Indicators of Poor Welfare in Dairy Cows Within Smallholder Zero-Grazing Units in the Peri-Urban Areas of Nairobi, Kenya

Nguhiu-Mwangi DJ, Aleri DJW, Mogoa DEGM, Mbithi PPMF. "Indicators of Poor Welfare in Dairy Cows Within Smallholder Zero-Grazing Units in the Peri-Urban Areas of Nairobi, Kenya.". In: Insights from Veterinary Medicine. InTech; 2013.


Animal welfare lacks a good universal definition and a satisfactory distinction from the term “well being”. However, a consensual definition is essential for practical, legislative and scientific purposes. Without a clear definition, animal welfare cannot be effectively studied or conclusively assessed to provide remedial measures to its violation [1-3]. Animal welfare is therefore defined as the ability of an animal to interact or cope comfortably with its environment, resulting in satisfaction of both its physical and mental state [4-6]. This satisfaction enhances expression of normal behavioural patterns by the animal [7,8].

In the context of welfare, “environment” refers to internal factors (within the animal) and external factors (in the animal’s physical environment) to which the animal responds with its physiological and psychological systems [6,9]. In contrast, animal “well being” is defined as the animal’s perception of its state in trying to cope with its environment [1,5]. Concisely, animal “well-being” refers to the current state of the animal, but animal welfare is a more general term referring to past, present and future implications of the animal’s state [10].

The assessment of animal welfare is base on the provisions of five freedoms, which include:

Freedom from hunger and thirst, availed through provision of ready access to water and a diet to maintain health and vigour,

Freedom from pain, injury and disease, availed through disease prevention and treatment,

Freedom from fear and distress, availed through avoidance of conditions that cause mental suffering,

Freedom to have normal behaviour patterns, availed through provision of sufficient space and appropriate physical structures,

Freedom from thermal or physical discomfort, availed through provision of a comfortable environment.

Knowledge of animal physiology, animal behavior and animal needs based on the five freedoms is paramount in assessing as well as enforcing animal welfare. Animals need to be provided with amble comfort related to these five freedoms. They should be kept in housing or environments that will minimize adverse climatic variations or exposures to extremes of cold or heat, rain, strong continuous winds and direct solar exposures. Appropriate conditions minimizing trauma, development of lesions and disease outbreaks are essential. Continuous availability of water and provision of adequate wholesome feeds, which consist of balanced constituent rations supplying specific nutritional needs to the body, is required. Animals should be provided with housing conditions and environments that allow them to display natural behavior such as unhindered movement, free expression of oestrus or heat symptoms necessary for mating or insemination in order to have continued sustainable reproduction, social relationships that include animal-to-animal and animal-to-human cordial interactions; and finally minimizing or preventing any causes of suffering as much as possible [11].

Smallholder dairy farming occupies a vast proportion of agricultural production and the main livelihood of the people in most developing (third world) countries particularly in Africa, Asia and South America. In Kenya, smallholder zero-grazing dairy units contribute about 80% of the national commercial dairy herd [12] and over 70% of all the marketed milk [13-16]. Each of the Kenyan smallholder zero-grazing dairy units has 2 to 10 milking cows most of which are exotic breeds (Friesian, Ayrshire, Guernsey, Jersey or crosses of these exotic breeds). Some smallholder farmers, who have better financial resources, manage to have up to 20 or more cows. The cows are raised on small plots of land measuring between 0.25 to 2 acres. Only few smallholder farmers would have land measuring a maximum of 5 acres. The Kenyan smallholder zero-grazing dairy units are unique because they have varied designs and management practices. They vary in housing designs, nutritional and management protocol from unit to unit to the extent that they can correctly be referred to as zero-grazing “subunits” that are devoid of a consistent production system. The nutritional regimes and management practices not only vary from unit to unit, but also within the same unit from time to time [17]. The cows in these units are invariably zero-grazed [13,18] and have sub-optimal production [14,18,19], which is attributed to a number of constraints such as inadequate feeding, poor nutrition, substandard animal husbandry, lack of proper dairy farming facilities that include inadequate space to move and interact freely. All these factors predispose the cows to diseases and other stressful conditions [14,20,21].

A high number of smallholder zero-grazing dairy units are concentrated in the peri-urban areas owing to availability of ready market for milk and milk products among city and town residents [13,18]. The high and rapid population growth in developing countries has led to a reduction of agricultural lands that support the livelihood of the people. This has triggered a shift from fewer large-scale farms to numerous intensified smallholder production units in an endeavor to maximize economic profits [22]. The resulting low income following land subdivision to smallholder enterprises, affects the livelihood of majority of the citizens in the involved countries [16,21]. The low income poses financial challenges that make it difficult to afford adequate dairy farming facilities, hence the progressively deteriorating husbandry standards that precipitate stressful conditions, which further exacerbate poor welfare of the dairy cattle in these smallholder units. These interacting multiple factors, cause a vicious circle of events that eventually have negative effects on physiology, behavior, disease susceptibility and productivity of the dairy cows [23,24]. The welfare of food animals has become a major concern to consumers of animal products in many parts of the world. Consumers of products such as meat and meat products, milk and eggs are demanding to know how the animals from which these products have been obtained are handled with respect to animal welfare ethics [25,26].

Dairy cattle housing should provide the animal with protection from harsh environmental extremes [27]. Good housing systems are those that are well designed for ease of management and maintenance at all times [27-29]. It is proposed that all confinement for animals should be constructed and operated to meet the legal requirements for protection of the animal as well as maintain high quality animal products [30]. Good animal housing systems are those that enhance provision of all the five freedoms that an animal should have to satisfy its welfare [28,31]. If these basic needs cannot be met in the animal house, then health, welfare and production of the animal will be compromised. These concerns are particularly critical in the smallholder zero-grazing systems, in which dairy cows are confined throughout their growth and production life. Naturally, cattle are grazing animals and therefore pasture-grazing is a more welfare-friendly system because it allows free expression of normal animal behavior compared to the restricted indoor zero-grazing systems. Conversely, high yielding dairy cows may not get all their nutritional demands from grazing only, and this may compromise their welfare with regard to nutrition. This means that both zero-grazing and pasture-grazing systems have positive and negative effects on the welfare of dairy cattle [32]. However, zero-grazing systems demand more articulate precision in design, construction and management because they have a higher inclination to compromising welfare of the housed dairy cattle. Although pasture-grazing allows free expression of normal cattle behavior and provides sufficient comfortable lying space, the pasture forage has lower nutritional value than the high plane feeding of the zero-grazing units and therefore cattle in pastures may spent long hours grazing depending on the quality and amount of forage in the pasture, hence less time resting, which influences the resting aspect of welfare negatively [33]. In comparison, indoor housing systems provide high level feeding and increase intake rates, thus fulfilling nutritional requirements faster, reducing eating times, leaving more time for cattle to rest and ruminate [34]. However, indoor housing systems have limited space allowance, which increases competitive aggressive behavior within the herd [35], restriction of natural foraging behavior and opportunity to feed selectively [36], negative effects on the cow comfort [33], and high incidence of diseases such as lameness and mastitis [37,38]. All these factors in the indoor housing have adverse effects on the welfare of cattle. In Kenya, the practice of zero-grazing dairy production is inevitable owing to the reduced land sizes. Hence, the importance of drawing reliable direct indicators of poor welfare existing in these zero-grazing systems in order to introduce corrective remedial measures, particularly in relation to designing of the construction of welfare-acceptable and cow-comfortable zero-grazing units no matter how simple or cheap.

Improvements of animal welfare may be achieved through (a) assessment of animal welfare, (b) identification of risk factors potentially leading to welfare problems and (c), interventions in response to the risk factors. Improvements can be enhanced by directly dealing with the risk factors of animal welfare within the farming unit. Therefore, there must be good reliable way of measuring or assessing whether or not poor animal welfare exists within the practiced farming systems. In this process the animal based parameters help us to identify the animal’s response to the system, and therefore indicating the negative impact of the potential risk factors existing within the farming system [39]. Traditionally, farm animal welfare assessment has focused on the measurement of resources provided to the animal such as housing-and-housing design criteria [40,41]. Although such indirect resource-based welfare assessment criteria are quick, easy and have some degree of reliability, basing the welfare verdict solely on their findings may not necessarily mean that the welfare of the animals is good or poor. Other husbandry aspects that affect animal welfare are management practices and the human-animal relationship, but their measurement may be more difficult. However, the provision of good management and environmental resources does not necessarily result in a high standard of animal welfare. Direct animal-level parameters such as health or behavior can be taken as indicators of the animals’ feelings and a measure of bodily state of the animal. These are more reliable because they indicate how the animal has been affected by some factors existing within the proximate environment or housing system of the animal and how it has responded to these factors. Welfare assessment should therefore be based primarily on such animal-related parameters. In practice, resource or management-based parameters should also be included in an on-farm assessment protocol when closely correlated to animal-associated measurements and because they can form the basis for the identification of causes of welfare problems [39]. It is however challenging to select and develop reliable and at the same time feasible measurements for on-farm assessment protocols. Attempts to create an operational welfare assessment protocol primarily relying on animal-related parameters have mainly been made with regard to dairy cows [42-45].

Animal-level indices for on-farm welfare assessment can be divided into ethological or behavioural and pathological or health parameters; physiological indicators are mostly unavailable for feasibility reasons. Ethological parameters include individual animal behavior, animal-to-animal interaction, human-animal interaction, agonistic behavior and other abnormal behavior. The commonest animal health indicators of cattle welfare are lameness, external body injuries, disease incidence, body condition score and body cleanliness. The main welfare health problem in cattle is lameness, particularly caused by lesions resulting from disruptions of the horn of the claw predisposed by factors such as concrete floors, zero-grazing systems and uncomfortable stalls [45,46]. One of the main shortcomings that exacerbates welfare problems of lameness in cattle and this would even be more prevalent in zero-grazing systems in developing countries, is the lack of valid and reliable lameness diagnostic methods. There is generally lack of sensitive methods of recognizing early change in the gait of lame cattle [44,47,48]. The most reliable and sensitive way of detecting early changes in gait for diagnosis of lameness is the use of automated gait-scoring computer aided systems, which are very scarcely used all over the world [49]. Moreover, these automated facilities are expensively unaffordable to the poor smallholder farmers in developing countries such as Kenya. Claw disorders particularly those related to laminitis are highly prevalent in smallholder zero-grazing dairy units and subunits in the peri-urban areas of Nairobi, Kenya and probably in other parts of Kenya with similar production systems [50]. These have been found to be highly associated with housing and management factors within the zero-grazing units [17,50]. This high prevalence of claw lesions together with a high prevalence of injuries or signs of injuries in specific parts of the body as well as soiling and body condition scores of dairy cows in the smallholder zero-grazing units in the peri-urban areas of Nairobi, Kenya [51,52] was thought to be reliable indicators of the state of welfare of dairy cattle particularly when correlated with the prevailing zero-grazing conditions.

Parameters used to assess animal welfare should be able to inform us about the state of welfare. Three requirements are essential for parameters or indicators used to assess animal welfare. These include: “validity”, which asks the question, “what does the parameter in consideration tell us about the animal’s welfare state?”; “reliability”, which considers inter-observer reliability and asks the question, “do different observers see the same thing?” and the third requirement is “feasibility”, which considers the practical aspects of doing the recordings, asking the questions, “how easy is it to record the parameter?, how long does it take to assess the parameter?, and what equipment is needed for measuring the parameter?” [39].

There is a high likelihood among farmers with zero-grazed dairy cows to focus more on whatever it takes to cause their cows produce as much milk as possible at the expense of the health and welfare considerations of the animal. High milk yielding cows often develop a compromise of energy-balance deficits, which infringes on their welfare. As a result of energy deficit stress, these dairy cows become easily susceptible to metabolic and reproductive problems [53]. The uniqueness of the zero-grazing systems in Kenya which consists of subunits that are inconsistently varied in designs, in feeding regimes in relation to feed types, quality and quantity, as well as substandard management practices makes them a rich source of information on management of welfare of cattle. Information acquired from studies in these smallholder zero-grazing subunits will serve to demonstrate how animal-level parameters can be useful in indicating the welfare state of the dairy cattle and how these indicators are associated with the housing design, feeding and management practices in these varied and substandard zero-grazing units and generally suggest possible remedial welfare improvement measures.

The intent of this paper is to present the results from two studies carried out at different times with collection of data from some of the zero-grazing units in the same area but looking at separate objectives. These studies dealt with assessment of the state of welfare of dairy cattle in those units and the prevalent risk factors for poor welfare. In particular, it was planned 1) to determine the role of claw lesions in predicting the welfare of zero-grazed dairy cows with respect to housing designs, floor type, feeding and management practices in the peri-urban areas of Nairobi Kenya; 2) and to determine the role of body injuries, body soiling and body condition scores in predicting the welfare of zero-grazed dairy cows with respect to housing designs, floor type, feeding and management practices in the peri-urban areas of Nairobi Kenya.

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