Assessing animal welfare of extensively reared beef cows in New Zealand and Namibia : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Veterinary Science at Massey University Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa, University of New Zealand, School of Veterinary Science, Manawatu, New Zealand
There is currently no standardised validated animal welfare assessment protocol for beef cattle production systems in New Zealand or Namibia. In both countries beef cattle are reared extensively, and beef is exported to high-value markets. These markets require high production and welfare standards. The aims of the research described in this thesis were to: 1) develop a feasible, effective protocol for assessment of welfare in extensive pasture-based beef cattle in New Zealand, and modify it to be suitable for use on semi-arid rangeland farms in Namibia; 2) use that protocol to assess welfare on beef farms in New Zealand and Namibia.
A protocol based on the Welfare Quality and the University of California (UC) Davis Cow-Calf protocols, with some additional indicators specific to New Zealand was trialled on one farm and 50 measures were identified as potential welfare indicators on beef farms. The protocol was then tested on 25 farms (3366 cows) in the Waikato district and a 32-measure protocol was created which was suitable for assessing animal welfare. For each measure, categorical thresholds were created for acceptable and unacceptable welfare, to provide guidance for when intervention was needed at the individual measure level rather than create an aggregated ‘score’ for each farm. These imposed thresholds were compared to thresholds derived from farm data. After this comparison, most of the imposed thresholds were retained. This excluded thresholds for dirtiness and faecal staining (as they were thought to have limited welfare implications for pasture-based cattle) and fearful/agitated and running behaviours, which were thought to be higher than expected because of the unfamiliarity of stock with yarding.
The New Zealand protocol was tested in one semi-commercial Namibian village farm composed of 5 separate herds. This test excluded one non-relevant measure (tail fecoliths) and identified nine additional measures (40 measures in total). The protocol was tested on 55 beef farms in three different production systems (17 commercial farms, 20 semi-commercial and 18 communal village farms), and found to be both feasible and applicable. Assessment of the data from this test found better welfare standards on commercial farms than village farms. Commercial farms in Namibia were generally able to meet the thresholds identified in the New Zealand part of the study but many semi-commercial and communal herds were not. This was thought to be due, at least in part to the severe drought occurring in Namibia at the time of the study. It was thus suggested that for measures related to good feeding and mortality thresholds should be changed to reflect drought conditions with the original New Zealand-created thresholds retained under “normal conditions”. Further work validating this protocol with more assessors on more farms across Namibia is needed, but this protocol can form the basis for beef cow welfare assessment to demonstrate and support good welfare standards across the beef production chain in Namibia.