EU animal welfare proposals that could almost double the pen space needed for finishing cattle have been debunked by new Teagasc research findings, writes Stephen Cadogan.
In a four-year trial, Teagasc researchers have shown that providing finishing cattle with more than three square metres per animal did not improve animal performance or animal welfare.
They also found that housing the cattle on rubber mats or straw instead of concrete slatted floors had no effect on animal performance or animal welfare.
And the cattle housed on rubber mats overlaid on concrete slats had a greater number of hoof lesions (suggesting hoof health may be compromised, although there was no evidence of lameness).
The Teagasc researchers concluded from their findings it is necessary to account for both the animal live weight and expected growth rate, when allocating a space allowance, rather than assign a fixed space per animal.
They said their results provide objective, scientifically sound guidelines for the Irish beef industry, that safeguard the international reputation of the industry and allay possible consumer concerns.
The predominant housing system in Ireland is concrete slatted floors, in an estimated 68,000 sheds.
There have been calls in the EU for concrete slatted floors to be phased out and replaced by more ‘welfare-friendly’ surfaces, such as straw bedding, or slats overlaid with rubber. There had also been suggestions to increase space allowances on slats to three square metres for a 500kg animal and plus or minus half a square metre per 100kg above or below 500kg. This equates to almost doubling the current space allocation provided to finishing beef cattle, noted Teagasc researchers.
Many of these EU recommendations stemmed from a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Panel on Animal Health and Welfare’s findings in 2012, including that beef cattle on slatted floors had more injuries than animals on straw or sloped, partially straw-bedded areas.
In sharp contrast, the Teagasc four-year trial that finished last autumn shows that covering old or new slats with rubber had no effect on live weight gain or final carcass weight. Beef cattle on rubber matting developed more hoof lesions than those on slats, and there was no difference in the cleanliness of cattle on rubber mats or slats.
More than three square metres per animal did not improve performance or welfare, and housing finishing cattle on straw instead of slats did not improve animal performance (although they spent about one hour longer lying per day). Finishing cattle housed on straw were dirtier than those on slats after 105 days, in the Teagasc trials. Teagasc researchers also concluded two square metres per animal or less was inadequate for finishing cattle.
Experimental studies included old slatted floors, new slats, and both of these covered with rubber matting.