John Webster on Dairy Cow Welfare

Conversations with Clive: #4
June 1, 2023

John Webster is Emeritus Professor at the University of Bristol.

In April 2023, Prof. Webster talked to Clive Phillips for the Conversation with Clive series. In this series, leading farm animal welfare scientConversations with Clive: #4ists and academic experts share with Clive Phillips their thoughts and experience of farm animal welfare issues, including those related to intensive animal farming systems.

Timing of key topics discussed in the 41 minute conversation:

  • 00:05 Clive introduces John Webster: 50-year career starting with highly influential research into energy metabolism in sheep and rats pivoted to interest into welfare and husbandry of veal calves (1976) and then more broadly into dairy cow welfare, for which he is best known. Created Animal Welfare research team of over 40 internationally-regarded scientists at University of Bristol, focused on dairy cows, chickens, pigs, and companion animals. Contribution to framing the “Five freedoms” - guiding principles for considering quality of animal welfare conditions. Major proponent for reversing the disastrous trends in dairy cow welfare globally.
  • 03:50 Animal welfare after veterinary degree - prime intention to be of service to animals within agriculture. Early experience working in a dairy before university studies. PhD research into climatic stress in dairy cattle. Early research opportunities in Canada, Scotland into improvements in dairy production.
  • 06:05 Impact of veal calf production strongly influenced furthering interest in animal welfare, coinciding with Professorship of Animal Husbandry role at University of Bristol Veterinary School.
  • 07:00 Expanding the “5 Freedoms” outlined by the Brambell Report (United Kingdom, 1965) into international standards, further reducing risk of abuse against production animals.
  • 08:05 Energy metabolism and nutrition in ruminants: Stress challenges digestive and metabolic systems, 10 months of the year, pressure of producing around 60 litres of milk per day.
  • 09:35 Genetic selection and improved diets improving milk production, dairy cows as high-performance vehicles.
  • 10:55 Suffering and dairy cow lameness: Traditional problems of digestive upsets including ketosis (too much rapidly-fermentable sugars diet, high starch:cellulose ratio); and displaced abomasum leading to emaciation and unprofitable rates of milk production (“worn out” cows). Lameness now biggest welfare problem, globally. Main reason lack of foot care - biggest threat occurs during latter stage of pregnancy where relaxin hormone affects limb and foot ligaments to significantly increase impact on hoof (outer claw) regions - NOT laminitis - inflammation of the lamellae of the hoof wall. 6-weeks post-natal foot care - taking pressure off the outside claw - virtually cures problem that would otherwise become a chronic condition.
  • 18:40 Cold and heat stress, zones of thermal comfort: Heat stress requires environmental modification, evaporative convection (air conditioning) has good refrigerant properties. Dairy cows are particularly highly adaptable to cold stress (-18 degrees centigrade) and very limited capacity to deal with heat stress, associated with high metabolic demands of milk production.
  • 24:40 Housing and grazing, and freedom of choice for cows: Use of stalls (cubicles) in dairy cow husbandry. Free-stall versus tie-stall housing practices, grass and silage, historical importance of dairy cows to humans, incredible value of dairy cows often overlooked.
  • 28:30 Mastitis - teat and cistern inflammation (environmental and contagious): Major welfare problem for individual cow but secondary to lameness in importance. Milking machine hygiene improvements reducing incidence of contagious mastitis, however environmental mastitis from Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria etc. can be potentially life-threatening in some regions.
  • 30:15 E-collars (electronic collars), virtual fencing, and robotic milking: Controlled grazing may be potential solution to pasture diet imbalances, may improve production efficiencies in dairy cows housed indoors throughout the lactation period.
  • 33:25 Calf/cow separation, calf pneumonia and corticosteriods: Removing calf from dairy cow before a strong maternal bond formed remains problematic across industry, separation by humans probably facilitated by cow’s maternal behavior (early calf hiding and temporary separation after birth). Efforts to reduce early calf infections that can cause respiratory disease (calf pneumonia). Social and seasonal challenges with the spread of calf pneumonia and the use of corticosteroid treatments (particularly pneumonia caused by coronavirus infections).
  • 38:00 Sexed semen and artificial insemination: Welfare of bulls has improved, individual stalls no longer used. Sexed semen avoids unwanted male (bobby) calves from production. Beef bulls used to improve value of calves not retained for breeding.
  • 40:05 Final comments and resources at
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