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The effects of farming systems (organic vs. conventional) on dairy cow welfare, based on the Welfare Quality® protocol

Animal welfare in livestock production is of great interest to consumers. The organic farming approach strives to ensure animal welfare based on preventive measures, but there are very few scientific studies that compare the actual differences in animal welfare between organic and conventional farms. Those studies that have been carried out frequently focus on specific aspects of animal welfare, mostly health issues. The aim of the present study, therefore, was to investigate the effects of the farming system on the welfare of dairy cows in a more holistic way. Although this study was carried out in just two federal states of Germany, the results could serve as a suitable model for the whole country. We used the Welfare Quality assessment protocol to measure welfare for dairy cattle (Welfare Quality Ò, 2009) and the results showed significant differences (P< 0.05) between organic and conventional farms, but there was also considerable variance between individual farms of the same farming system. Organic farms scored higher in all four Welfare Quality Ò principles: ‘‘Good Feeding”, ‘‘Good Housing”, ‘‘Good Health” and ‘‘Appropriate Behavior” compared to conventional farms. In particular, organic farms obtained higher scores with respect to Welfare Quality Ò measures of resting comfort, which contributes to a lower percentage of lameness; organic farms also implemented less painful methods for disbudding, or indeed carried out no disbudding, and provided access to pasture and outdoor exercise. However, organic farms still have room for improvement, especially with respect to animal health. Therefore, outcome-based specifications should be included in the current (purely action-oriented) European regulation of organic production (EC,2008; EU, 2018) to safeguard the health-related aspects of animal welfare.

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