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Animal Welfare

Innovations in animal-based approach in Dutch dairy farming

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Alignment with SDGs


J.M.M. Jansen (ZuivelNL/DZK) & H. van Wichen (DZK) • The Netherlands

UN Sustainable Development Goals and animal health and welfare

Though animal welfare as such is not explicitly mentioned in the UN SDGs, Keeling et al (2019) concluded that working to achieve the SDGs is compatible with working to improve animal welfare. This link works in two directions. When analysing this mutual interaction, the impact of improving animal welfare on achieving the SDGs appeared to be, on average, slightly less than vice versa. The exception was SDG2 (‘Zero Hunger’). This confirmed an analysis by Bellamy and Bogdan (Rabobank, 2016), who already had concluded that good animal care and welfare in the first place makes a considerable contribution to SDG 2, since the improved health of the cow helps to increase cow productivity, thus contributing to a more efficient milk production. Moreover, the direct link between animal care and welfare and the efficient functioning of dairy cattle also relates to feed efficiency, which contributes to emissions reduction, thus delivering on SDG 7 (‘Affordable energy & clean energy’). 

Finally, animal care and welfare are part of a broad set of environmental criteria (including biodiversity, water, soil nutrients and waste) that widely address the SDGs 12 (‘Responsible Consumption and Production’) and 13 (‘Climate Action’). In addition to this, one can easily bring in more arguments to broaden the scope of the significance of animal welfare in the context of the UN SDGs, as illustrated by I. Otieno (Civil Society Unit, UNEP) on the occasion of the OIE Global Forum on Animal Welfare (Nairobi, April 2020), who scored no less than 13 of the UN SDGs (SDG 1-6, 8, 10-15) as having a relevance in relation to animal welfare.


To determine the welfare level on a dairy farm is a complex task, as animals do not speak for themselves. And there is lack of practical, objective methods for accurate and frequent welfare assessments. The European Welfare Quality protocol is the most extensive one, but it takes about a full day to perform. In the Netherlands, where animal welfare is considered a key topic within the context of sustainable farm management, stakeholders of the dairy sector successfully worked together over the past decade to develop a workable, hands-on solution for farmers that is also reliable. This resulted in a Welfare Monitor, that is a practical implementation of the European Welfare Quality®-protocol. This Welfare Monitor can be executed in only 1.5 hour on a farm with 100 cows. By 2020, 96% of Dutch dairy farmers make use of the Welfare Monitor, which is now incorporated in CowCompass. The CowCompass is an on-farm risk analysis on animal health and welfare, that shows what is going well and what can be improved in technical management.

With regard to the development of better objective monitoring methods for the assessment of animal welfare in the future, the Dutch dairy sector is also currently investing into methods based on biomarkers. This is also based on the principle that measuring to the animal itself, more than focussing on its surroundings, is the future. Next to that, it is also in line with the vision of the European Commission, as this implicitly recognizes the integrity of the animal.

Setting the scene: Introduction and background

The Dutch dairy sector considers a good level of animal welfare on dairy farms to be key for sustainable dairy farming. ‘A happy cow contributes to an economically healthy farm and a happy farmer’ is a slogan often heard. Moreover, as dairy cattle are at the heart of the dairy business, the dairy farming sector puts a strong focus on the cow and calf, thus operating by using an animal-oriented approach. This is also reflected by the programme of the Sustainable Dairy Chain (DZK), in which sustainability is approached holistically. 

DZK is the Sustainable Dairy Chain Programme of the Dutch Dairy Sector, in which farmers and processors jointly work on achieving sustainability goals, to further improve sustainable production in the Dutch dairy chain. DZK operates under the umbrella of ZuivelNL, the organization of the Dutch dairy sector, with membership of both farmers organisations and the processors organisation. Due to its broad coverage, DZK in fact represents the entire Dutch dairy sector.

Striving for continuous improvement of the health and welfare of dairy cows and calves is one of the main goals of DZK, besides several other goals, like climate change mitigation, preserving biodiversity, economic sustainability and farm safety. The dairy sector’s approach to animal health and welfare, as presented in DZK, also fits into the way of looking at animals and treating them, as presented in 2021 by the Dutch Animal Affairs Council (RDA). The RDA is a leading advisory body to Government and relevant stakeholders, whose view is widely accepted by stakeholders in Dutch society. As such, the dairy sector is also well aware that good animal welfare strengthens its license to produce.

However, measuring animal welfare in an objective way is a complex exercise. Asking the cows themselves about their mood and how they feel is quite impossible. Moreover, methods currently in use for monitoring the well-being of dairy cows on farms lack objective observation criteria for ‘positive’ well-being. And, above all, these instruments are often labour-intensive and therefore relatively expensive. Still, early signalling of a reduced animal welfare status, based on reliable, relevant cow’s data, remains of utmost importance to dairy farmers, as it would allow them to manage in a more direct and efficient way on the welfare status of their dairy cattle. For this reason, developing a methodology to measure animal welfare in an adequate, objective way has also become a high priority on the dairy sector’s wish list. 

Development of a welfare monitor

Against this background, the Dutch dairy sector started various initiatives over the past years to monitor and improve the animal welfare status in dairy cattle. 

This started with research to compare four existing welfare measurement methods, with the ultimate goal to create one practical measurement method in line with the European Welfare Quality®. This research was funded by the former Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation and ZuivelNL and was supervised by the farmers organisation LTO, the Dutch Dairy Association (NZO), the Royal Dutch Society for Veterinary Medicine and the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals. The research was conducted with extensive involvement of dairy farmers and veterinarians. This resulted in the addition of a welfare monitor to the already existing practical tool CowCompass.

CowCompass is carried out by a trained veterinarian together with the farmer. This management system gives an overview of the animal health and welfare situation and the potential risks at the individual dairy farm. By using this system, dairy farmers also comply with legal requirements for having a Farm Health Plan. The CowCompass clearly shows what aspects go well, in which areas potential risks may occur and which aspects of the technical operational management on the farm leave room for improvement. 

The Welfare Monitor that was incorporated in CowCompass closely correlates to the European Welfare Quality® protocol but is much less time-consuming per evaluation. Like the Welfare Quality®, the Dutch Welfare Monitor results in a score on four aspects: nutrition, health, housing and regular behaviour. As part of these aspects, attention is paid to the physical condition, the locomotion and hygiene score of dairy cattle, the human-animal relation as well as the application of dehorning practices. The core of the method consists of looking at cows (clinically and behaviour) and evaluating them, in combination with measuring their (housing) environment (available spaces, cleanliness of available water, etc.). The benefit of the implementation of the Welfare Monitor within CowCompass is that the farmers not only get a measurement of the current welfare level of their herd, but also get advice on what can be improved to increase the welfare level even further.  This can be input for discussion among the farmer, his regular vet and other professionals that visit the farm.

Cow Compass. Illustration based on G.A. Hooijer: Example of a septagram generated from the Cow Compass system. The red line represents a medium risk level. The more a blue surface, the less risks were determined in the milk production process.

CowCompass has become an integral part of the animal health and welfare management system of Dutch farmers.

What did it bring so far? Implementation phase.

After developing the Welfare Monitor, the implementation of the tool as part of the CowCompass management system was effectuated in the period 2016-2017.  The translation into the practical monitoring level was done in agreement with the Government and the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals. In 2016 the necessary ICT infrastructure was put into place and the training of veterinarians took place. In 2017 the first practical field experiences were gained and evaluated. By 2018, around 3,000 Dutch dairy farms (±18%) had implemented the Welfare Monitor. Though encouraging, this number was still too low for making a representative group, suitable for organizing a baseline measurement exercise. In the years after, the participation level of farmers gradually increased, reflecting the success of the approach. By 2019, participation rate of Dutch dairy farms had already increased to 88%. In 2022, the Welfare Monitor has become a widely accepted and appreciated tool amongst dairy farmers, with a participation level of 96%. 

This situation allows to organise a representative baseline measurement at dairy sector level. Based on that, it is foreseen that in the near future, the Sustainable Dairy Chain (DZK) will investigate the feasibility of setting future national targets for animal welfare, based on the Welfare Monitor tool. With that, the animal welfare aspect will be better secured as a structural aspect in the broader policy of seeking continuously for improvements in the field of animal health and welfare.


One of the often reported, positive consequences of applying the Welfare Monitor on the farm in a structural way is that, by using it, farmers in general develop a more animal-oriented view. It is observed that applying the Monitor provides them with a better insight in the animal welfare status of their cattle. Moreover, they also see the economic return of the investment in welfare, by contributing to a better health status of their animals, which also adds to job satisfaction. These are all considered positive outcomes. The current Animal Welfare Monitor thus proves to be a very useful tool that, inspired by the European Welfare Quality®-protocol, allows a practical, less time-consuming way of getting adequate information on the animal welfare status of a certain herd. 

Although all veterinarians, who carry out the observations, are being trained for that purpose, in scoring and observing there always remains an element of subjectivity. Moreover, the current instruments in use lack objective observation criteria for ‘positive’ well-being of animals. It is for this reason that the Dutch dairy sector wished to develop a methodology to measure animal welfare with animal-based measurements in a more objective way. 

With this in mind, the Dutch dairy sector, encouraged by the Dutch Government, started a research project on biomarkers to measure welfare of dairy cows. From other research it is known that the ‘state of mind’ of people, is reflected by a variation in the presence of certain biomarkers. The key objective of this research project is therefore to find out whether it is possible to measure the state of well-being of cows, whether positive or negative, by measuring the level of certain biomarkers. The approach of this research is based on three recent developments in scientific research: 1. The relation between well-being and emotional state and the presence of biomarkers; 2. The measurement of emotional state of animals through behaviour testing; 3. The non-invasive measurement of biomarkers in animals. The search for useful biomarkers comes down to performing behavioural tests in groups of cows that are expected to be in a particular emotional state, while at the same time measuring potential biomarkers in both blood (as a reference) and biological materials other than blood, for example milk. Besides this, existing methods for welfare measuring at farm level are being combined with random measurements of certain biomarkers, to try to identify useful biomarkers for objective animal welfare assessment. It is expected that the study will be completed by the end of 2022, after which a possible follow-up can be determined.

Despite the investment in animal-based measurement methods like Welfare Quality® and the EU vision on animal welfare as formulated in the EU Farm2Fork strategy the unfortunate reality is that the focus in policy is still on resource-based measures like housing conditions. It certainly is clear that innovations in housing conditions of cows have increased the welfare of cows enormously in the last decades. And it is also true that, when using animal-based measures, this creates room for innovation to improve even further on housing. However, a good environment is just one out of the six guiding principles the Dutch Animal Affairs Council (RDA) presented as prerequisites for animal worthy livestock management. These are: 1. Recognition of the intrinsic value and integrity of the animal; 2. Good nutrition; 3. Good environment; 4. Good health; Natural behaviour; 6. Positive emotional state. The RDA states that livestock systems designed on the basis of the six guiding principles are animal-worthy livestock farming systems that enable positive animal welfare. Animal-based measurements give a total view on animal welfare. This also includes farm management as a key aspect for animal welfare.

It underlines the importance of awareness among policy makers to use welfare measurements that always take the animal as a starting point, instead of focussing on secondary aspects that, though important, may offer only part of the solution, and often at a higher cost.

Figure 1. Example of a welfare score of an individual farm - Source: Koemonitor / ZuivelNL (elaborated)


Stakeholders of the Dutch dairy sector successfully worked together over the past decade to develop a Welfare Monitor, that is based on the European Welfare Quality®-protocol, but which is faster and more workable for dairy farmers. This tool has now become an integral part of the animal health and welfare management system in use by dairy farmers (CowCompass). In 2022 a national baseline measurement is foreseen, which will be the starting point of setting sector goals for further improvement in animal welfare in the future. The Welfare Monitor in the Netherlands is based on an animal-oriented approach.

Taking it a step further, parallel to the practice of implementing the Welfare Monitor, research is being carried out on biomarkers in cows, with the aim of measuring welfare status of cows in a more objective way. This is fully in line with the EU-vision that puts the animal in the centre, as described in the European Welfare Quality®-protocol. In animal welfare, the on-farm management system and way of working by farmers is a key aspect. In view of this, the focus on measuring surroundings and environmental factors, that still often dominates policy measures, brings a risk of missing the point and putting unnecessary (economic) pressure on dairy farmers. Therefore, it is concluded that optimal animal management, based on reliable animal-based data should become the basis for welfare quality in the future.


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