Relationship between herd size and measures of animal welfare on dairy cattle farms with freestall housing in Germany
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The objective of this study was to examine the association of herd size with animal welfare in dairy cattle herds. Therefore, 80 conventional dairy cattle farms were classified by the number of cows into 4 herd size classes, C1 ( less than 100 cows), C2 (100–299 cows), C3 (300–499 cows), and C4 (greater or equal 500 cows), and assessed using multiple animal-based measures of the Welfare Quality Assessment protocol for dairy cattle. Data were recorded from April 2014 to September 2016 by an experienced single assessor in Northern Germany. Each farm was visited 2 times at an interval of 6 mo (summer period and winter period) to avoid seasonal effects on the outcome. The average herd size was 383 ± 356 Holstein-Friesian cows (range 45 to 1,629). Only farms with freestall (cubicle) housing and a maximum of 6 h access to pasture per day were included in the study. Data were statistically analyzed using a generalized linear mixed model. None of the farms reached the highest overall rating of “excellent”. The majority of the farms were classified as “enhanced” (30%) or “acceptable” (66%), and at 6 assessments the farms were rated as “not classified” (4%). Regarding single indicators, mean trough length per cow, percentage of cows with nasal discharge, and vulvar discharge increased with increasing herd size, whereas it was vice versa for displacements of cows. Percentage of lean cows, percentage of dirty lower legs, and duration of the process of lying down showed a curvilinear relationship with the number of cows per farm. Herd size was not associated with any other measures of the Welfare Quality protocol. In conclusion, herd size effects were small, and consequently herd size cannot be considered as a feasible indicator of the on-farm animal welfare level. Housing conditions and management practices seem to have a greater effect on animal welfare than the number of dairy cows per farm.