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Friday January 27, 03:00 AM

Expert warns over Holstein's future

THE Holstein cow, mainstay of the UK dairy herd and a major source of beef for the processing market, is balanced on an animal-welfare knife edge, a government veterinary adviser warned this week.

Successive moves to boost the breed's genetic potential, particularly in terms of milk production, have led to serious health and welfare problems and have considerably reduced the animal's life expectancy, said Ian Barker of the Farm Animal Welfare Council.

"According to the three most important indices of fitness - namely fertility, mastitis and lameness - life is getting worse for her," he said. "Today her life expectancy is little more than three lactations, whereas ten years ago it was probably five or six.

"In the US, dairy cow life expectancy is down to a little over two lactations. In fact, I understand in some herds they have difficulty in breeding enough replacements.

"The conception rate in the UK is down to around 40 per cent and declining by 1 per cent every three years. I have several herds with conception rates as low as 32-35 per cent. In the US it is not unusual for the rate to be as low as 22 per cent."

Barker said the decline in fertility was caused by a combination of factors, including the increase in cow yields and herd size and the difficulty of supplying enough energy and nutrients to match these yields. This had been compounded by the increasing move to American genetic sources, he said.

Lameness in dairy cows was also a major welfare problem, with most surveys showing an annual incidence of about 50 per cent and a prevalence of 20 per cent. "This means that half the cows go lame once a year and 20 per cent are lame at any one time," Barker said.

But his claims were disputed by Marco Winters, technical director with the Milk Development Council's Breeding Plus programme, who said there had been a great deal of progress in the past ten years in understanding the genetics of Holstein cattle, which made up 90-95 per cent of the UK dairy herd. He said the cow's life expectancy, which had never been much above 3.5 lactations, was actually improving.

Winters pointed to fertility indices introduced by the council last May, which indicate longevity patterns, and said the council was also making progress in identifying locomotion issues that lead to lameness.

Beef cattle reared in a more natural way had a better life, with the possible exception of animals bred from the Belgian Blue, with its double muscling gene, said Barker, a practising vet. He said: "The majority of pure bred Belgian Blue cows cannot give birth naturally and require a Caesarian section. I pose the question: is it ethically correct to breed cows either naturally or by embryo transfer knowing the cow or heifer will require a Caesarian?"

Barker made the case for improved herd health plans to include welfare considerations, but warned this was made difficult by the declining number of vets in farm animal practice. "There is a crisis approaching if it is not already here in some areas," he said. "There is little or no profit in farming, so farmers do not call vets when they should. As work declines, fewer vets are employed and working rotas become untenable. Young graduates are leaving farm practice and moving to other areas of work."

The impact was felt most severely among small farmers who were faced with rising bills and falling income, Barker said, adding: "Often the farmer must choose between animal welfare and his own family welfare. It would not be quite the problem it is if farmers were properly rewarded for their produce."

By: VIC ROBERTSON -- 27-Jan-06