Animal health and welfare
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Achieving animal health and welfare is vital to ensure a thriving and diverse ecosystem. Regenerative agriculture is committed to co-build agricultural models that respect natural resources and foster animal welfare.
The welfare approach is developed based on the internationally recognised Five Freedoms established by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. The Five Freedoms call for management and housing of animals to respect the following needs:
- freedom from hunger and thirst by ready access to fresh quality water and a diet that maintains full health and vigour;
- freedom from discomfort by an appropriate environment, including shelter and comfortable resting areas;
- freedom from pain, injury and disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment;
- freedom to express normal behaviour, by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animals’ own kind and; and
- freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and care that avoid mental suffering.
This step will cover basic animal health and welfare concepts applicable to grazing livestock such as nutrition, water management and prevention of parasitic diseases.
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Nutritional benefits of grazing
Diverse pastures may offer the potential of improved mineral and nutrient profiles, with chicory, ribgrass, sheep’s parsley, yarrow, and burnet being deep rooted and bringing up calcium, copper, sodium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium from the soil. Lucerne, clovers, and sainfoin are high in protein, and plants containing condensed tannins such as birdsfoot trefoil, and leaves from ash, lime, and mulberry trees bind protein in the rumen, allowing increased protein absorption in the intestines.[1,2,3]
Willow can provide zinc, selenium, and vitamin E and browsing can make up to 55% of the diet for cattle and up to 76% for sheep. Livestock may select plant species containing active compounds such as condensed tannins and naturally occurring antimicrobials.[1, 5, 6]
Floodplain meadows provide multiple ecosystem services and studies have found that they can store more soil carbon than some forests, but also provide nutrient rich hay for the winter period, for both housed and outwintered cattle. In fact, such meadows must be cut to maintain them and are therefore an excellent option for winter feed.
Diverse pastures can provide increased resilience to grazing, providing sward cover during periods of adverse weather. They can also provide higher crude protein than limited species grass swards.
Ewes grazing multispecies swards can have greater liveweights, can maintain their body condition between lambing and weaning, have higher ovulation rates, lower neonatal mortality, and faster growing lambs compared to ewes grazing perennial ryegrass.[1,8]
Increased finishing weights and average daily gains have been demonstrated in beef grazing birdsfoot trefoil, and in beef and sheep grazing chicory.[9, 10, 11] Dairy cows can produce well with increased variety of grazing, with cattle grazing white clover and birdsfoot trefoil producing higher milk yields compared to cattle grazing grass pastures.[9, 10]
Rotational grazing increases productivity of pastures, and farmer George Hosier noted that moving cattle between paddocks frequently offered an opportunity to record weights and monitor growth as they passed through the yard.
Let’s take the example of cattle.
When the design of the facilities is in accordance with the behaviour of the cattle, it contributes to improving working conditions and to manage them in a welfare environment. This also makes work easier and faster for the operators.
In free-range conditions cattle show very different social organisations than we see in today’s systems. The social structure is determined by matriarchal groups consisting of adult females with their young of the year and separate groups of males.
Females and young animals graze freely over large areas, while adult males are kept in subgroups with well-defined territories. Groups consist of 30-40 individuals and the age range is very wide.
The natural behaviour of cattle is to live in groups, march in line and have a binocular angle of vision (Figure 1), which is an important aspect to take into account when handling them.
As they have an established hierarchy, access to food and water is based on the dominant groups, which can result in lower-ranking animals having more limited access to food or water.
In effect, when the cows move to the watering hole, the dominant cows will move first, then the intermediate cows, and when the dominant cows decide to leave, the whole group will leave. This results in the lower ranking cows not drinking, which means that cows can suffer from moderate or even severe dehydration. Therefore, it is essential to have an efficient hydraulic system that is designed so that all animals can drink.
It is easiest to use round-shaped drinking troughs to increase the viewing angle of the cows and in turn the safety angle (Figure 2). In addition, the passage distance between cows is larger, which creates more safety for the animal.
Figure 1. Advantages of a circular versus a rectangular drinking trough taking into account the binocular vision characteristic of cattle. @EIT Food
Managing parasite burdens in a regenerative way
One of the main current problems that the livestock sector has in recent years is the generation of resistance developed by parasites. Indeed, reducing the use of anthelmintics, molecules used against nematodes*, is essential to reduce the impact of resistance on production, but also to preserve ecosystems.
Furthermore, the use of anthelmintics can also lead to the decline of certain soil allies such as dung beetles, which are key to soil regeneration thanks to their ability to generate organic matter through animal faeces.[5 ,6]
Several studies have shown the production of secondary metabolites effective in reducing internal parasite loads from plants used for grazing.[7, 8] One such study conducted in Dublin in 2016 and 2017, compared groups of lambs grazing different plant associations and concluded that the greater the diversity of plants in the pasture, the lower the number of anthelmintic treatments required.
In vivo studies have found that feeding bird’s foot trefoil, sainfoin, and chicory reduces gastrointestinal worm burdens in cattle and sheep. Lambs infected with multiresistant H. contortus larvae and fed sainfoin pellets had faecal egg counts 50% lower than infected lambs fed a control diet. Multispecies meadows (like those supported in a herbal ley) containing these plant species and others have been demonstrated to reduce parasite burdens in livestock. This may be because these diverse meadows contain anthelmintic compounds.
It has also been shown that those prairies reduce the number of anthelmintic treatments required by groups of grazing lambs compared to those grazing a more traditional pasture of perennial ryegrass and clover.
Pastures which contain trees suitable for browsing (silvopasture) may also have beneficial effects on parasite burdens in ruminants. Willow trees (Salix spp.) contain condensed tannins and a study found that lambs fed willow had reduced burdens of H. contortus and T. circumcincta.
Other ‘regenerative’ strategies for parasite management are under investigation with a fungi, Duddingtonia flagrans, showing potential as an anthelmintic food additive.
When cattle need to be treated, injectable or pour-on anthelmintics are preferable to boluses, as they are less persistent in faeces, and avermectins* should be avoided if possible. Ideally, treated animals should be housed for a short period of time to avoid the spread of resistant worms around the farm and to protect invertebrates from anthelmintic residues.
*Nematodes: a type of roundworm which helps distribute bacteria and fungi through soil and along roots by carrying live and dormant microbes on their surfaces and in their digestive systems. Nematodes are food for higher level predators, including predatory nematodes, soil microarthropods, and soil insects.
*Avermectins: a series of drugs and pesticides used to treat parasitic worms and insect pests.
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