OSC Activity G.1

Assessment of health, welfare and milk composition on organic and conventional dairy farms

Activity Researchers

Name Affiliation
Trevor DeVries, Lead Researcher

Assistant Professor
Department of Animal and Poultry Science
University of Guelph
Kemptville Campus
830 Prescott St.
Kemptville, ON K0G 1J0

Herman Barkema, Co-applicant

Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases
University of Calgary
3280 Hospital Drive NW
Calgary, AB T2N 2Z6

Alan Fredeen, Co-applicant
Dalhousie University
Faculty of Agriculture
PO Box 550
Truro, NS B2N 5E3
Andrew Hammermeister, Collaborator
OACC Manager
Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada
Dalhousie University
Faculty of Agriculture
PO Box 550
Truro, NS B2N 5E3
Renée Bergeron, Collaborator
RBergeron@alfredc. uoguelph.ca
University of Guelph
Alfred Campus
31 St Paul St
PO Box 580
Alfred, ON K0B 1A0
Anita Tucker, Collaborator
University of Guelph
Animal & Poultry Science
Guelph, ON N1G 2W1
Phone: (519) 837-8867


To evaluate the health, welfare and milk quality and fatty acid composition from a representative sample of organic and conventional dairy herds in Ontario in relation to production practices as a benchmark.

Activity Summary

Modern day consumers expect high quality and value from their dairy purchases. Of primary interest are taste, color, smell and food safety, and more recently, enhanced nutritional value. Some consumers are now giving higher consideration for production practices in their purchases as they relate to animal health and welfare, ecologically sustainable production, and the absence of chemicals, pesticides and antibiotics. These niche market values are captured with price premiums through organic production. The current organic market was still less than 1% of the total world food market in 2005, although it is a strong growing sector worldwide. In Canada, the production of organic dairy products is concentrated in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. In 2005-2006, the 3 provinces counted 118 organic dairy farms producing more than 40.8 million litres of milk (Sector profile, 2007). Alberta only had two organic dairy farms in 2006-2007, but is experiencing the highest increase in market demand in Canada (Macey, 2007). As a response, 10 Alberta dairy farms are currently transitioning to organic production (Keri Sharpe, Alberta Agriculture, personal communication).

Organic livestock production standards strongly emphasize a preventative approach to herd health management through adopting practices that reduce stress and improve health through feed and supplements (see CAN/CGSB32.310-2006, amended October 2008). Should organic practices fail, conventional treatment cannot be withheld from an animal to maintain organic status. Concern has anecdotally been expressed, however, that the restrictions in organic livestock production may ultimately jeopardize animal health and welfare. In contrast, organic advocates (including producers) have indicated that herd health is improved under organic management and the need for chemical allopathic drugs is greatly reduced.

The objectives of this research are to evaluate the health and welfare of cows, and the quality and fatty acid composition of milk, in relation to production practices. The study will focus on many of those practices emphasized in the Organic Management Standards such as pasturing and alternative health management (see CAN/CGSB32.310-2006, amended October 2008). A study will be conducted in which 30 organic dairy herds and 30 conventional dairy herds from Ontario will be monitored over a one- year period. Health and culling events, along with treatment applications will be recorded and evaluated in relation to farm practices within each of the sectors. To assess udder health and milk quality, every udder quarter infected with clinical mastitis will be sampled for one year. Milk composition will be evaluated in spring, summer, fall and winter with an emphasis on determining fatty acid composition of the milk fat. On-farm assessments of animal welfare will be carried out twice per farm in the winter and summer. These assessments will include cow-level measures of welfare (body condition, cleanliness, lameness, etc) as well as farm-level measures (housing and management practices).

The results of this research will be used to promote improved management practices on both organic and conventional dairy farms, as well as reduce costs and increase efficiency through improved animal health and welfare.

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