Farm Ireland

Saturday 20 January 2018

We can learn from Canadian cow welfare model

Armstrong Manor Farm, in Ontario, Canada is extending facilities to milk 400 cows. Cow comfort is a priority in the housing environment.
Armstrong Manor Farm, in Ontario, Canada is extending facilities to milk 400 cows. Cow comfort is a priority in the housing environment.
Dan Ryan
Dan Ryan

Dan Ryan

I've been visiting many dairy farms over the past week, and milk price remains the number one concern of farmers.

"When will the price bottom out?" is one of the many questions I've been asked. "We cannot afford to stay in business. We will have to sell cows to pay bills," said another.

Others voiced concerns about their their overdrafts, while some raised fears about increased welfare problems for farmers and their stock over the winter.

After mulling over these concerns, I wonder how can we accept a situation where both cow welfare issues and the stress levels imposed on farm families results in an unsustainable food production system?

Most dairy farm operations are willing to accept a milk price which enables reinvestment in the operation and provides funds for educating their children and some savings for retirement. Current milk price and the short-term outlook have thrown this objective into disarray.

Last month I also spent some time on dairy farms in Canada where the dairy industry still operates a quota regime. Dairy farmers have control of their destiny in this market where farmers are paid 55c/l for cow's milk and 75c/l for goat milk.

Canadian dairy farmers are currently very happy with their milk price, especially when one considers that the costs of production are significantly greater than in grassland spring milk production systems in Ireland.

The most impressive of the dairy farms I visited was Armstrong Manor Farm in Ontario.

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The three families involved in this business are milking 290 cows, and extending housing facilities to milk 400 cows.

Production figures are impressive with 400kg protein and 500kg butterfat from a rolling herd average of 12,500 litres in 305 days. Cows are housed and calving occurs year round.

Cow comfort was a priority in the housing environment. Emphasis was placed on cubicle design, size of beds, lounging area and walking area between cubicles and feed space.

First calvers are managed separately to other cows. This avoids a lot of the social hierarchy problems encountered by first calvers in the dairy herd.

These first calvers cannot afford any stress as they strive to cope with uterine repair, post calving lactation, continued growth in skeletal size, and resumption of normal heat cycles.

Canadian milk supply is meeting the national demand. The quota regime maintains control of supply based on market demand. This in turn has resulted in 55c/l milk price for the Armstrong Manor Farm in July 2015.

Before rushing off to emigrate to a dairy farm in Canada, be warned that entry costs are high and expansion is slow.

However, the structure of the industry lends itself to a sustainable milk production system.

Cow welfare and the standard of living on the dairy farms visited were excellent.

Disease management is a priority on the Armstrong Manor Farm. Preventative health management programmes in conjunction with their nutritionist and vet are a priority, and all contribute to what I believe is a sustainable food production system.

Emphasis is placed on early identification of cows positive to Johne's disease. Milk replacer has been used for rearing calves for the past 20 years. With beef scarce in the US, their Friesian bull calves are making €300.

They find it frustrating that first calvers still come up positive for the disease, and believe that the tests for the disease are not reliable.

Therefore they test positive animals on a monthly basis, with high positives on a repeated basis being culled from the herd.

Sexed semen is used solely with maiden heifers for the past seven years.

Replacement rates are high at 25pc as there is a strict 200 days of lactation for eligibility for breeding.

My experience in Canada has reinforced my view that the Irish dairy industry needs to focus on sustainable food production where we can ensure that the welfare of cows is not compromised at any stage of the production cycle.

In return, this has to command added value in milk price.

Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at

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