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Interpretive Summary: Influences on the assessment of resource- and animal-based welfare indicators in unweaned dairy calves for usage by farmers

By Anne Zinn

The demand for animal-friendly production systems by consumers, stakeholders, and the legislature has risen over the past years and animal welfare assessment protocols have been developed to evaluate animal welfare at the farm level to ensure high animal welfare standards. A study recently published in the Journal of Animal Science aimed to apply possible animal welfare indicators for unweaned dairy calves on conventional dairy farms with early cow-calf separation. Additionally, the German research team aimed to identify influencing factors by analyzing the effect of group size, calf sex, age, climatic conditions before and during the visit, and the observer. An animal welfare assessment, using 7 resource-based and 14 animal-based indicators, was conducted at 42 typical Western German dairy farms (844 calves) in 2018 and 2019 by two observers. 

Overall, the assessment of animal welfare by resource and animal-based indicators in unweaned dairy calves showed to be hampered by the relatively small calf herds on the dairy farms visited and their variation regarding calf age and sex. Factors such as group size, calf sex, and climatic conditions at the time of the farm visit, and the role of the observer were identified as influencing factors on the result of animal welfare indicators. It was concluded that, although the usage of animal weldar indicators from self-assessment for conditioning or benchmarking animal welfare of calves on a farm level seems critical, both resource- and animal-based welfare indicators could be useful tools to sensitize farmers to the welfare of calves through the assessment itself, which could improve animal welfare overall. Further investigation may be warranted. 

The full paper can be found on the Journal of Animal Science webpage.