Housing and management factors associated with indicators of dairy cattle welfare

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Knowledge of potential synergies and trade-offs between housing and management factors for different aspects of animal welfare is essential for farmers who aim to improve the level of welfare in their herds. The aim of this research was to identify and compare housing and management factors associated with prevalence of lameness, prevalence of lesions or swellings, prevalence of dirty hindquarters, and frequency of displacements (social behavior) in dairy herds in free-stall housing. Seven observers collected data regarding housing and management characteristics of 179 Dutch dairy herds (herd size: 22–211 cows) in free-stall housing during winter. Lame cows, cows with lesions or swellings, and cows with dirty hindquarters were counted and occurrence of displacements was recorded during 120 min of observation. For each of the four welfare indicators, housing and management factors associated with the welfare indicator were selected in a succession of logistic or log-linear regression analyses. Prevalence of lameness was associated with surface of the lying area, summer pasturing, herd biosecurity status, and far-off and close-up dry cow groups (P < 0.05). Prevalence of lesions or swellings was associated with surface of the lying area, summer pasturing, light intensity in the barn, and days in milk when the maximum amount of concentrates was fed (P < 0.05). Prevalence of dirty hindquarters was associated with surface of the lying area, proportion of stalls with fecal contamination, head lunge impediments in stalls, and number of roughage types (P < 0.05). Average frequency of displacements was associated with the time of introducing heifers in the lactating group, the use of cow brushes, continuous availability of roughage, floor scraping frequency, herd size, and the proportion cows to stalls (P < 0.05). Prevalences of lameness and of lesions or swellings were lower in herds with soft mats or mattresses (odd ratio (OR) = 0.66 and 0.58, confidence interval (CI) = 0.48–0.91 and 0.39–0.85) or deep bedding (OR = 0.48 and 0.48, CI = 0.32–0.71 and 0.30–0.77) in stalls, compared with concrete, and in herds with summer pasturing (OR = 0.68 and 0.41, CI = 0.51–0.90 and 0.27–0.61), compared with zero-grazing. Deep bedding in stalls was negatively associated with prevalence of dirty hindquarters (OR = 0.50, CI = 0.29–0.86), compared with hard mats. It was concluded that some aspects of housing and management are common protective factors for prevalence of lameness, lesions or swellings, and dirty hindquarters, but not for frequency of displacements.