New research aims to improve animal welfare when making end-of-life decisions for dairy cattle

By Stacy Nick, Colorado State University News

It’s probably not something most people think about — how and when dairy producers decide a cow is near the end of its life and what happens next. 

But to Colorado State University Animal Sciences Associate Professor Lily Edwards-Callaway, it’s a challenge that impacts both the welfare of the animal and the producer in a variety of ways. 

“End-of-life decisions are often a question of making timely determinations that are best for the animals, so there is a big animal welfare component to it,” Edwards-Callaway said in a university news story. “But I think what’s been lost for a while in the agricultural space is that it’s also a really hard decision for the people making it.”

To help improve the process on both sides of the fence Colorado State University researchers Edwards-Callaway, Noa Roman-Muniz and Catie Cramer have received a $1 million grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The four-year project will be led by Edwards-Callaway, an animal welfare expert, and involves a multidisciplinary, collaborative team comprised of Roman-Muniz, a former dairy extension specialist and veterinarian; Cramer, a dairy calf health and management researcher; epidemiologist Lorann Stallones; statistician Kayleigh Keller; and dairy extension specialist Diego Manriquez Alvarez. 

A high-risk challenge

End-of-life decision-making for the culling of dairy cattle has been identified as a high-risk challenge area in the industry. In addition to the emotional component, these decisions are often influenced by many — often competing — social-ecological factors, such as training, communication and regulatory factors.

There also is a lack of straightforward solutions, in part because stakeholders all possess dramatically different views of what the problems are, Edwards-Callaway said. But there can also be grave consequences for poor decision making, not only for animal welfare but on the individuals caring for the animals, as well as on the economic viability and sustainability of the dairy industry as a whole.

“For animals that have given us so much and had such a productive life, I think we owe it to them to make these decisions in the best ways possible,” she said. “Also, the people that raise the animals are a huge part of the food production and agriculture industry, and so supporting them and giving them tools to do their job better is also incredibly important.”

Improving animal and human welfare

Improving dairy cattle welfare by focusing on their human caretakers may seem odd, but people are actually a critical part of the equation. Roman-Muniz has been a pioneer in this space for decades.

It’s a misnomer that people in the agricultural livestock industry aren’t invested in the quality of life of their animals, Edwards-Callaway said. They do have bonds and relationships with the animals they are charged with caring for. While it’s different from the ones that we have with our pets, it’s still hard to decide on euthanizing the animal or transitioning its role from a dairy cow to a beef cow.

That’s part of the challenge in making decisions to euthanize them, she said. Collaborating to create a framework that helps better standardize this process could take some of the pressure off.

“Identifying some of the specific stressors to workers and providing them the tools to ultimately improve animal and human welfare is a powerful thing,” Edwards-Callaway said. ”As a team, we’re improving the lives of animals and people.”

Industry impact

The decision on when to euthanize a dairy animal is one of those areas that no one likes to think about, said Emily Yeiser Stepp, executive director for the National Dairy FARM Program with the National Milk Producers Federation. The organization was one of many industry members to support the project.

“Our industry is so focused on the live animal side that if a decision about an animal has to made, whether that’s shifting an animal from dairy to a beef or having to euthanize her, that it is viewed as a failure on either the farmer’s part or the farm staff’s part,” Yeiser Stepp said. “I think that’s why it’s been a little bit of a taboo to explore the motivations and barriers of ensuring that welfare of the animal and the caretakers are first and foremost.”

CSU’s research in this area will help the industry break past those taboos, she added.

“This is research that will have a profound impact on all of the industries involved and ultimately for the welfare of our cattle, in addition to the people that work within it,” Yeiser Stepp said. 

A different approach

In an effort to identify the most influential factors impacting end-of-life decisions and develop practical interventions, researchers will use a Social Ecological Model to analyze the complex interplay between a range of factors and decision makers throughout the supply chain.

To follow the decisionmakers down the path, researchers will be interviewing and surveying groups along the supply chain, an approach that the core team is adept at — from workers at the dairy, at auction markets, at processing plants — to try to understand from them what are the social ecological factors that are influencing the decisions that they’re making. Because it’s different at each level.

“We recognize that making these decisions is challenging and that it’s a decision that is owned by the entire supply chain,” Edwards-Callaway said.

After collecting and summarizing the data, researchers will host workshops to bring together the stakeholders across the country and the industry — from dairy owners to processors to veterinarians to look at co-creating an intervention that will improve the process for both the humans working in these fields and the animals they’re caring for.

“One thing that’s been missing from this equation is that people often just point fingers, and they don’t own a solution,” Edwards-Callaway said. “This way we’re providing the platform to come together, collaborate and find real solutions. That’s the real power in this because it’s a co-creation and co-ownership across the entire supply chain.” 

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