Influences on the assessment of resource- and animal-based welfare indicators in unweaned dairy calves for usage by farmers

Jason J. Hayer, Dorit Nysar, Céline Heinemann, Caroline D. Leubner, Julia Steinhoff-Wagner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Consumers, industrial stakeholders, and the legislature demand a stronger focus on animal welfare of all livestock at the farm level by using suitable indicators in self-assessments. In order to deduce farms’ animal welfare status reliably, factors that influence indicators’ results need to be identified. Hence, this study aimed to apply possible animal welfare indicators for unweaned dairy calves on conventional dairy farms with early cow–calf separation and evaluate influencing factors such as age and sex of calves or climatic conditions on the applied indicators’ results. An animal welfare assessment using 7 resource-based and 14 animal-based indicators was conducted at 42 typical Western German dairy farms (844 calves) in 2018 and 2019 by two observers. The effect of influencing factors was calculated by binary and ordinal logistic regressions and expressed as odds ratios. Although every unweaned calf was assessed during the farm visits, most farms had relatively few unweaned calves (average number of calves ± standard deviation = 20.1 ± 6.7 calves), with six farms having not more than 10 calves. The small sample sizes question the usage of those indicators to compare between farms and to set thresholds at the farm level. Only one assessed indicator (cleanliness core body) was not statistically affected by the evaluated influencing factors. Calf age was identified as the most decisive factor, as it affected 16 of 21 evaluated indicators, and calf age distribution on-farm varied greatly. Climatic conditions (ambient temperature and rainfall) influenced resource-based indicators such as access to concentrate and water or the cleanliness of feeding implements and bedding as well as animal-based cleanliness indicators and the occurrence of health-related impairments such as coughing and diarrhea. The authors found differences between calves on farms assessed by the different observers not only in resource-based hygiene indicators but also in animal-based indicators such as hyperthermia or hypothermia, highlighting the need for further evaluation of quality criteria in dairy calf welfare assessments. Nevertheless, animal welfare assessments by farmers themselves could be useful tools to sensitize farmers to animal welfare and thereby improve calves’ welfare.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberskab266
JournalJournal of Animal Science
Issue number10
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • confounding factors
  • consistency over time
  • sample size
  • self-assessment
  • welfare indicators


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