Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Serbian livestock production: what can we learn about calf welfare?



Sophia Hepple is the first Nuffield scholar to be sponsored by AHDB Beef & Lamb. She began her project, Evaluation of calf management practices in early life which can impact on long-term survival and productivity, earlier this year. Sophie recently visited the Vojvodina region of North-West Serbia as part of her scholarship and reports back on her findings.

A relatively young country, Serbia gained its independence from the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in June 2006 and is currently one of a number of “accession” countries which are being considered for entry to the European Union, hopefully within the next five to ten years.

My visit was kindly hosted by the Vojvodina region’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Danijela Kosomora, who is also a member of central Government’s animal welfare group.

I was impressed by the cattle traceability processes which are now in place and are required to allow trade with EU member states, even though the export trade is still quite small. Just as in the UK, some farmers have been embracing digital technology for years. Others are still very much paper-based or have the well-known “I keep it all in my head” approach, so, for them, adaptation to cattle identification and movement legislation has been a greater challenge!

Dairy cows are traditionally tethered throughout lactation
Considering it is less than ten years since Serbia gained its independence, the country’s progress towards meeting the European Commission’s Food & Veterinary Office (FVO) recommendations from previous inspections is certainly impressive.

In total, 80 per cent of the population in Vojvodina are employed in the agricultural sector and the region has a climate and soil type that can support a variety of arable crops. With hot summers and a clear focus on crop production, it is traditional practice in the region to house livestock and bring the feed to them. This is reflected in the dairy sector’s traditional tie-stalls for dairy cows throughout lactation. While I had read a lot about the health and welfare impacts of such systems, it was my first experience of seeing them in use. More recently, tie-stalls are being replaced by cubicle or straw-based systems, some with pasture access.

Calves assessed as compliant with the
EU calf directive
With respect to animal welfare laws, Serbia implemented national laws in 2010 to comply with European legislation on farmed animal welfare. However, it has now gone one step further as, at the end of 2014, with the help of Bristol University, it developed an inspection protocol based not just on input measures (e.g. minimum size of calf pens), but also on an animal-based measures approach, including criteria such as lameness, mortality and dirtiness scores.

I joined animal welfare inspectors as they visited four farms in the region, and, as well as interviewing the farmer specifically for my project, got to see how cattle and calf welfare assessments were carried out at an official level. The protocol was originally developed for UK inspections for assurance schemes wanting to focus specifically on measuring and bench-marking key welfare output measures, such as the RSPCA’s Freedom Food and Soil Association, under a Tubney Trust funded AssureWel project at Bristol University. I was impressed to find such protocols, originally developed just a few miles down the road from where I live, were now being rolled out 1,111 miles away in Serbia.

While I had previously visited Belgrade to train Serbian inspectors on calf and pig welfare in 2013, I had never left the hotel. It was so much more rewarding to actually visit the farmers and their livestock to understand them, the culture and current animal health and welfare challenges at a practical level.