COWEL: a decision support system to assess welfare of husbandry systems for dairy cattle
Animals have various behavioural and physiological needs that are important for welfare. Fulfilment of these needs depends on the quality of housing, management and animal characteristics. The objective of this study was to develop a model to assign welfare scores to husbandry systems for dairy cattle, based on scientific results, and thereby supporting the design of new, welfare-friendly systems. COWEL is a computer-based decision support system that contains attributes regarding housing and management conditions. These attributes are technical specifications that contain various technical units called levels. These levels are ranked from best-to-worst regarding welfare, based on scientific information about animal-based parameters. This information, inserted in the model as statements, was weighted depending on the impact it has on welfare by using weighting categories. Thereafter, a weighting factor was calculated for each attribute which determines how important an attribute is for welfare. The COWEL model contains 2,343 statements on dairy cattle welfare from 476 sources found during a literature survey. The model was applied to four husbandry systems, namely a tie-stall, cubicle housing, a straw yard and a pasture-based system. The welfare scores, calculated by COWEL for these husbandry systems, correspond with the general opinion about these systems. A tie-stall receives a low and a pasture-based system a high welfare score: 211 and 271, respectively. A husbandry system can receive a maximum of 313 on the welfare scale of COWEL. We conclude that COWEL can be used to rank husbandry systems on a welfare scale, and may be a useful tool to develop new, sustainable and welfare-friendly systems for dairy cattle.
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