Continuous improvement of cow and calf well-being

The well-being of farm animals has a key role in the new milk production quality and methods agreements currently being made with Valio dairy farmer entrepreneurs. 74% of the dairy farmer entrepreneurs are covered by the new agreement. “Those who sign up will receive one cent extra per litre of raw milk as of 1 January 2018. Our goal is to raise the percentage of entrepreneurs covered to one hundred by 2020”, says Juha Nousiainen, Senior Vice President of Valio, Farm services and Milk Procurement.

The new agreement requires, for example, systematic health care for dairy farm cattle and that cows are entered in the Naseva bovine health care register. It means a veterinarian visits the farm at least once a year to evaluate a range of factors related to the cows’ health and well-being. The information is stored in Naseva, enabling farm comparisons.

At many farms the veterinarian visits more than once a year. Valio and its dairy co-operatives recently launched a cattle veterinarian service in the Valma online system for owner entrepreneurs, where individual veterinarians and companies that provide health care services can post their contact details and other information. This will improve the availability of contract veterinarians at Valio dairy farms.

“Finnish cows are the healthiest in the EU thanks to the good work done at the dairy farms, indicated by e.g. the infrequent use of medication and the low cell count of the milk”, says Juha Nousiainen.

Outdoor grazing promotes cow well-being. The Council of State Decree on Welfare of Bovines requires that cows housed in tie stall barns graze or exercise for at least 60 days during the period 1 May–30 September. If unlawful activities are detected, the co-operative’s production advisor will investigate the reasons and develop methods in tandem with the entrepreneur. If the farm operations can’t be put back on track, milk collection can be suspended for a fixed period until the farm complies with the law and Valio production methods.The new agreement requires also that any new barns built shall be free stall, and the cows’ opportunity to graze and/or spend time outdoors shall be taken into account in planning the new barns. Today, nearly 55% of Valio cows live in free stall barns. The cows are also able to change position, sleep and eat in tie stall barns. Typically, cows spend their day lying down, for around 12 hours during which they sleep and ruminate. Eating occupies up to 8 hours and milking a couple of hours. Key factors for well-being are sufficient feed and water, a dry resting place, and that the animals and barn are kept clean.

The new milk production quality and methods agreement requires that the health of the cows’ feet is tracked regularly and treatment provided where necessary. If calves are dehorned at the farm, pain relief and sedation shall be given under the supervision of a veterinarian. This has long been standard practice at most farms.

In milk production, animal well-being is also linked with productivity and profitability. Cows’ average milk yield is in general increasing by around 1.5% per year. Part of this is explained by silage crop quality and part by advances in breeding. Improving the conditions in which the animals are kept, and increasing investments in well-being, are also highly significant.

Animal well-being at Valio dairy farms is of a high standard. “Happy, healthy cows yield high-quality milk. Some 96% of the raw milk taken in by Valio is in the best quality category, and Finnish cows are the healthiest in the EU. In the Nordic countries, other than in Denmark, cows are given considerably less antibiotics compared to Central Europe. In Finland, antibiotics are only given when ordered by a veterinarian, never preventatively”, tells Juha Nousiainen.  

The topic of animal well-being is often raised in the media when milk production and foods of animal origin are discussed. Sustainable and sensible production is not optional but a necessity to maintain acceptable business operations and keep dairy products attractive.