Dairy Cattle Code of Practice - Progress Update

March, 2021

Since the last update, the Code Committee reviewed the findings from six virtual focus groups that were conducted with dairy producers from across Canada in November and December of 2020. Fifty producers participated (34 English-speaking and 16 French-speaking) and the focus groups were designed to get deeper insights on producer attitudes, opinions, and practices related to stocking density; exercise and access to pasture and alternatives; calving areas; and calf housing. Overall, this activity was viewed positively by the Code Committee, and focus group participants greatly appreciated being engaged in these conversations and having a voice in how the industry can improve.  

The Code Committee noted similar broad themes between their own discussions and those of the focus groups, notably the need for clear minimum expectations while also allowing for farm-level flexibility and tailoring. As well, general agreement that the farmer, their management, and the facility all play a role in achieving optimal health and welfare. Participants also indicated a general willingness to consider change if supported by research and citizen and/or consumer viewpoints certainly figured into some of their discussions. While the Code Committee is still grappling with several housing topics, the learnings from the focus groups seems to have helped the committee reach agreement in some areas or has given them greater confidence in the approaches they were perhaps already leaning towards—both of which are important outcomes from this work.

Between early December and late February, the entire Code Committee met nine times and an additional three subcommittee meetings took place. These meetings were focused on addressing outstanding issues within the five consolidated chapters of the draft updated Code of Practice. They also delved further into the Housing chapter (e.g., stocking density, special needs areas including for calving cows). Several meetings were also devoted to the Health chapter with emphasis on calf health, calving management, and promoting hoof and leg health.

Despite good progress on many challenging topics, more time is needed to work through several health and housing topics before the full draft Code of Practice will be ready for public comment. The comment period will now take place in early fall of 2021 (rather than the spring of 2021). The committee will thus take a very short but well-deserved break but is also determined not to lose its momentum! A series of meetings will be scheduled soon for spring/early summer.

November, 2020

The Code Committee has been busy this fall with four meetings of the entire committee and eight subcommittee meetings. Five chapters of the Code are now drafted (Preparations for Transport, Feed and Water, Husbandry Practices, Euthanasia, and a short new chapter on Stockmanship and Training).

These chapters were recently circulated to the committee – finally combined into one document – so that the committee can begin to see how the draft code, considered as a nearly whole document, is coming together. Upcoming meetings will focus on drafting the two chapters that remain (Housing, Health Management).

New sections have been added to the draft on caring for down cattle, assessing male calves’ fitness for transport, dry off management, and weaning. The draft appendices also include several new user-friendly tools related to the transportation regulations and evaluating cull cows prior to shipping, assessing calf health, and euthanasia decision-making.

Recent meetings have included presentations from committee members (producers, processors, animal welfare advocates, researchers, and industry advisors) primarily focused on housing topics. Initially intended to help us adapt to online meetings with such a large group, the presentations have evolved into a nice way to lean on the team’s experience and expertise, build understanding across this diverse group, and allow for different proposals to be brought forward for consideration.

A series of focus groups with dairy producers across Canada is also underway, and it is hoped the results will help the Code Committee gain deeper insights on producer perspectives on housing topics. These learnings will build on the insights we have from all stakeholders who offered top-of-mind thoughts on dairy cattle welfare in NFACC’s 2019 survey.

The Scientific Committee’s report on priority welfare issues is now finalized following its peer review. The report will be released publicly when the draft Code is released for public comment.

Of note, the draft dairy Code so far references the Scientific Committee’s report at least 70 times so far. An impressive number that is a testament not only to the dairy industry’s long-time culture of funding research in animal welfare but also a reflection of the quality of the Scientific Committee’s report and the Code Committee’s commitment to producing an evidence-based Code of Practice.

September, 2020

Over the summer, the Code Committee’s main activity was an online meeting focused on updating the chapter on pre-transport preparations. As with the current dairy cattle Code of Practice, the updated Code will have an on-farm scope, and the actual transportation process will be covered by the transportation Code of Practice. The committee agreed that the goal of dairy producers should always be to produce healthy, sound cull cows and to make improvements throughout the Code in support of this. Their discussion mainly focused on assessing fitness for transport most notably assessing gait and body condition with an eye to how long the animal may be transported or otherwise in the marketing system. Beyond this, the group discussed appropriate dry off strategies as well specific considerations for calves.

Several subcommittee calls are planned for this fall to put the finishing touches on the draft feed and water chapter, revisit key topics in the health chapter, and begin detailed work on the housing chapter.

The Scientific Committee is in the final stages of addressing valuable input from peer reviewers on their draft report on priority welfare issues.

Fifth meeting - June 9 and 10, 2020

The Code Committee had a series of online meetings over 2 consecutive days in June. The first sessions were devoted to housing, and each member had an opportunity to speak to their stakeholder’s overall hopes for the updated housing chapter.

The main areas of focus were stall design, animal comfort, and various options for offering cows and calves freedom of movement – all of which were among the topics most frequently raised by stakeholders who participated in the top-of-mind survey. In later sessions, they circled back to housing to summarize areas of common ground and gaps in knowledge to fill in advance of future discussions.

Great progress was made reviewing the draft chapters on husbandry and euthanasia, and at this point those draft chapters are largely complete. Work on the husbandry chapter allowed the committee to address many of the points raised through the top-of-mind survey, notably the importance of calm, quiet handling as well as the overall need for attentive training and supervision of staff. For euthanasia, the committee aims to incorporate user friendly tools to support euthanasia decisions and offer additional guidance on correct technique for euthanasia.

Perhaps owing to how well the group got to know each other through past face-to-face meetings (and of course group dinners!), the committee continues to have very positive, productive exchanges despite the current realities of meeting remotely. 

The peer review of the report on priority welfare issues is complete, and the research writer is working with the Scientific Committee to address the input.

Fourth meeting – March 30 and 31, 2020

The March meeting of the Code Development Committee was adapted to a remote/online format consisting of 3 sessions each focused on the remaining priority welfare issues the Scientific Committee is reporting on (lameness and injuries, end of life management, and exercise and outdoor access).

Trevor DeVries and Elsa Vasseur, speaking on behalf of the Scientific Committee and their Research Writer, presented an overview of the research on each of these topics. This was followed by a Q and A and while most questions related to the research summarized, committee members also posed questions to other committee members. In this way, the group was able to draw out the various types of expertise around the “virtual table”. The last portion of each session consisted of a roundtable with committee members offering preliminary thoughts on the topics presented and possible ways to address them in the updated Code. While this made for a great exchange of insights, it is very much the first of many discussions to be had while committee members continue to digest all the research on these complex topics to be addressed in the updated Code of Practice.

Some examples of the main topics addressed in the research report are outlined below. The next meeting has been scheduled for June (also remote/online). In the meantime, the Scientific Committee’s report will be peer reviewed and sub-sets of the Code Committee will continue to draft selected sections of the Code for later review by the entire Code Committee.

Lameness and injuries

  • For lameness and injuries, the Scientific Committee and their Research Writer reviewed 140 papers published between 1996–2020 with an emphasis on work published since the 2009 Scientific Committee report.
  • The broad topics included in their literature review were injury and lameness prevalence, risk factors (notably those related to the broad categories of housing, management, and cow-level factors), prevention strategies, early identification and treatment, and farm-level barriers to reducing occurrence.

End of life management

  • The Scientific Committee reviewed 21 studies (published between 1988–2020) covering the interrelated topics of euthanasia, culling, and fitness for transport. More specifically, recent research on the condition of culled cows at auction or slaughter were reviewed as was literature on producer training and other on-farm tools to help determine a cow’s fitness for transport prior to shipping.
  • In terms of down cattle, the Scientific Committee reported on appropriate nursing care and general factors that influence prognosis for down cattle.
  • Their review also spoke to factors that influence timely treatment and euthanasia for vulnerable cows.

Exercise and outdoor access

  • The literature review on this priority welfare issue reported on the effects that increased opportunities for movement have on various aspects of cow health and welfare, e.g. lameness and hoof health, injuries, reproduction, udder health, and lying behaviour.
  • This section of the Scientific Committee’s report summarized the findings of 51 papers published between 1977–2020.

Third meeting – January 6 and 7, 2020

The co-Chairs of the Scientific Committee presented several chapters of the research report completed to date, including cow-calf separation, pain control, and selected housing topics (i.e. stall design, bedding, air quality and temperature, and stocking density). Following these presentations, the Code Development Committee discussed the research findings and considered preliminary approaches to these topics in the updated Code of Practice and will continue these discussions in subsequent meetings.

The Code Committee also revised the husbandry chapter of the draft Code (e.g. stockmanship, milking, handling) and revisited certain sections of the feed and water chapter (e.g. milk feeding, weaning, feeding at pasture). Many of the topics discussed were identified as top-of-mind concerns in a survey launched at the start of this Code’s update.

The next meeting has been scheduled for March.

Second meeting – September 30 and October 1, 2019

This meeting was focused on reviewing the following updated chapters of the Code of Practice: health (e.g. calf health, calving management), feed and water (e.g. body condition scoring, pasture feeding), and euthanasia (e.g. timelines, training). The analysis from the survey asking for top-of mind thoughts on dairy cattle welfare was reviewed again as each chapter was considered. Beyond specific updates to the Code, all sections are being looked at with an eye to adding supporting context for requirements and recommended practices and highlighting research results, particularly studies published since the release of the 2009 Code of Practice.

The co-Chair of the Scientific Committee presented research on dairy calf feeding and weaning (summarized in the 2016 Scientific Committee report for the veal Code), and this was followed by an initial discussion about possible approaches to these topics in the Code.

One strength of the current dairy Code is its inclusion of group or herd level targets, and this type of bench marking was frequently raised in the September meeting. The committee identified a need to have a dedicated discussion on group- or herd level targets to consider additional data and the potential need for a consistent approach throughout the updated Code of Practice.

As part of a preliminary discussion on pre-transport considerations, the committee heard an overview of the new transportation regulations and considered themes/recommendations from reports on cull cow management and male dairy calf marketing, recently published by the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council.

A comparison of international dairy cattle welfare standards has been prepared and is also informing the committee’s discussions on various topics.

The next meeting has been scheduled for January.

First meeting – July 3 and 4, 2019

The Code Development Committee attended a webinar orientation on the Code development process prior to this inaugural meeting allowing more time in the in-person meeting for committee members to get to each other’s areas of expertise, establish unique strategies for reaching consensus, and discuss priorities for the updated dairy cattle Code of Practice.  

Highlights of the meeting included an overview of the dairy industry today (including regional contexts) as well as the animal care module of proAction® (Dairy Farmers of Canada’s on-farm animal welfare assessment based on the current Code of Practice).

The committee also explored the main themes from a recent online survey intended to capture top-of-mind welfare concerns for dairy cattle and noted strong overlap between public and committee input on priority topics for this iteration of the Code.

Working with the project’s Scientific Committee (who were also in attendance), a list of priority welfare issues was agreed to (available here). These topics will form the basis of the Scientific Committee’s research report (the 2009 report is available here).

The next meeting is scheduled for the fall. In advance of that meeting, the Code Development Committee will begin working on draft sections of the Code. The Scientific Committee will begin its review of research on the priority welfare issues.