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Dairy welfare audits: Maximizing benefit for your farm

Cassandra Tucker for Progressive Dairyman Published on 01 July 2019

Successful dairies have healthy cattle and consistent animal care. Dairy welfare audits aim to evaluate both and provide a structure for measuring performance of animal health and cattle care.

Measuring aspects of animal health: Lameness, hygiene, body condition, somatic cell count, broken tails, and hock and knee injuries

Good dairy welfare audits emphasize animal-based measures. With this approach, audits focus on the outcomes of care rather than being prescriptive about the housing provided. Tracking these animal-based measures provides clues about what is working well on a dairy and where more management is needed.



For example, let’s say an auditor comes to a dairy, scores locomotion in a pen of high-producing cows and finds 6 percent severe and 40 percent moderate lameness. This information provides a starting point for next steps. The best U.S. dairy farms can achieve less than 1 percent severe and 10 percent moderate lameness, so there is room for improvement on this example dairy. To apply the audit results as a management tool, the farm should drill down to the cause of the problem by working with the herd veterinarian, nutritionist, hoof trimmer and resources like the Dairyland Initiative’s intervention plan. When the farm makes changes, progress can be monitored through locomotion of the herd, assessed by another audit or by a trained farm manager or employees.

To be useful as a management tool, there are several things animal-based measures should do:

1. Focus on animals at risk for the specific problem.

It makes sense to invest time and energy into the age groups on the dairy at risk for the specific problem. For example, the oldest, highest-producing cows are the most likely to be lame, but lameness is not a frequent problem in calves, so they would not be included in this measure.

2. Measure enough animals to generate meaningful, accurate numbers.


Animal-based measures are often calculated as a percentage of the group affected. If too few animals are measured, the values will not reflect true conditions on the dairy. There are two common situations where this happens.

If the farm is small, as in many tiestall operations, and the audit measures too few animals, a single affected animal can make the problem look worse than it is. For example, if a farm has one thin cow out of the 20 evaluated, it looks like 5 percent of the farm has the problem. This number might be too high. Instead, it is better to measure all the cows and capture the true situation.

On larger farms that milk in a parlor, it is best to measure every animal in a specific group or pen. If that is not possible, measuring at least 100 animals per pen is recommended. This approach helps prevent bias in the auditor’s choice about which animals to measure. Bias can occur if animals with problems are excluded or become the auditor’s focus.

Bias can also occur in ways difficult to anticipate. For example, let’s say the auditor is scoring cows in freestalls midday for locomotion. If he only records the cows standing up, the percentage of lame cows could be too low. This is because lame cows spend more time lying down than sound ones and were less likely to be scored because of the selection method.

Another example would be if an auditor scored lameness in the first 100 animals out of 150 cows returning to the pen after milking. They would miss the lame cows that hang back and are the last in their pen to be milked. Instead, the entire pen should be scored for these problems. Measuring 100 animals per pen for other measures like leg injuries, dirty animals and broken tails is a recommendation to help avoid these types of bias. One hundred is not a magic number, but it is a starting point. The key is to measure enough animals that you trust your or the auditor’s numbers ( Table 1).

The six main animal-based measures.


3. Use a trained, experienced auditor.

Auditors should have experience with the dairy industry. They need to be able to navigate a farm and understand how animals are housed. They need to be familiar with normal, healthy cattle behavior and condition in order to be able to identify problems. They also need to be familiar with the audit program and the scoring systems used for each animal-based measure. Good auditors are also consistent. All dairy welfare audit programs use subjective scoring for most animal-based measures, making calibration with pictures or videos and other auditors important. If the auditor is not well trained or does not calibrate with others, their measurements may not be useful to the farm or the dairy welfare program.

Measure care: Environment and paperwork

Environment evaluation often includes water access and cleanliness, heat abatement, protection from cold and features of the down cow housing. Auditors report what they directly observe on the day of their visit. Their feedback on environment can provide information about areas on the dairy that would benefit from investment in terms of repair, maintenance or remodeling. Good, experienced auditors can be valuable partners in troubleshooting challenges.

Protocols or paperwork often include cow care agreements, herd health plans, bedding maintenance and pen cleaning schedules, pain management and documentation about a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship. If the paperwork associated with dairy welfare audits lives only in the office, it does not tell us about dairy cattle welfare and is not useful in managing the dairy. In order for protocols to be meaningful, consistency between paperwork and practice is key. Dairy welfare auditors can help identify whether practices are consistent on your farm, provided that the audit is well structured and clearly written.

1. Well-structured audits focus on facilities and protocols that match up with the goals of the program. You should know why each aspect is included.

Dairy welfare programs aim to manage risk, convey commitment, identify differences for the purchaser, improve animal welfare or some combination of these. The facility and protocol measures included should align with the goals. For example, if the program aims to manage risk and convey commitment to larger purchasers, having paperwork that documents the high level of animal handling practiced on the farm is important. Large purchasers expect this type of documentation as part of normal business practice.

In order to be useful as a management tool, dairy audits need to include the rationale or the “why” behind the requirements. This limits something we call “audit creep,” where more and more paperwork is required without good reason.

2. Well-written welfare audits focus on what is auditable.

Words like “sufficient,” “adequate” and “comfortable” are not easy to audit. They have no clear meaning and likely differ from one auditor and dairyman to the next. To audit consistently, clear explanations need to be included so everyone can see and agree about what counts and what does not.

3. Well-written audits include clear verification criteria.

Good welfare audits explain how the auditor will verify each requirement. For example, standards about down cow care often specify that water should be available to these animals. Clear verification criteria for this would include:

  • Direct observation made by the auditor

o Water within reach of a downed cow during the audit

o Conduct a skin-tent test to check for hydration.

o If the skin tent indicates dehydration, ask an employee or dairyman to offer water and observe cow response.

  • Check records: Is there a log for the down cow pen for daily water provision?

  • Conduct an interview: Using open-ended questions, ask the dairyman or employee how water would be provided, including how often and the method of delivery.

An auditor could use any of these approaches to verify how down cows are provided water. If there were no down cows on the farm that day, the auditor could ask questions about how it would be handled, or they could look for a log from a previous event. In another example, if the farm chooses not to put water within reach of down cows continuously because they knock it over, and the farm instead offers water a few times per day, this would be fine. The skin tent, records and interview would all be ways the auditor could still check how care is being provided.

If dairy welfare auditors use a well-structured audit that outlines how to verify each requirement, their feedback can provide information about how consistently practices are followed on your dairy. This information is valuable when making decisions for your business, guiding investments and providing feedback about day-to-day operation of your farm. In order to maximize these benefits, the audit needs to be robust. This means animal-based outcomes should be measured in the high-risk group, in meaningful numbers and by an experienced, calibrated auditor. When evaluating facilities and protocols, robust audits focus on operational terms that can be verified and that are connected to the program goals.  end mark

Cassandra Tucker is a professor and director with the Center for Animal Welfare, Department of Animal Science at the University of California – Davis. Email Cassandra Tucker.