The Welfare Quality multi-criteria evaluation (WQ-ME) model aggregates scores of single welfare measures into an overall assessment for the level of animal welfare in dairy herds. It assigns herds to 4 welfare classes: unacceptable, acceptable, enhanced, or excellent. The aim of this study was to demonstrate the relative importance of single welfare measures for WQ-ME classification of a selected sample of Dutch dairy herds. Seven trained observers quantified 63 welfare measures of the Welfare Quality protocol in 183 loose housed- and 13 tethered Dutch dairy herds (herd size: 10 to 211 cows). First, values of welfare measures were compared among the 4 welfare classes, using Kruskal-Wallis and Chi-squared tests. Second, observed values of single welfare measures were replaced with a fictitious value, which was the median value of herds classified in the next highest class, to see if improvement of a single measure would enable a herd to reach a higher class. Sixteen herds were classified as unacceptable, 85 as acceptable, 78 as enhanced, and none as excellent. Classification could not be calculated for 17 herds because data were missing (15 herds) or data were deemed invalid because the stockperson disturbed behavioral observations (2 herds). Herds classified as unacceptable showed significantly more very lean cows, more severely lame cows, and more often an insufficient number of drinkers than herds classified as acceptable. Herds classified as acceptable showed significantly more cows with high somatic cell count, with lesions, that could not be approached closer than 1m, colliding with components of the stall while lying down, and lying outside the lying area, and showed fewer cows with diarrhea, more often had an insufficient number of drinkers, and scored lower for the descriptors "relaxed" and "happy" than herds classified as enhanced. Increasing the number of drinkers and reducing the percentage of cows colliding with components of the stall while lying down were the changes most effective in allowing herds classified as unacceptable and acceptable, respectively, to reach a higher class. The WQ-ME model was not very sensitive to improving single measures of good health. We concluded that a limited number of welfare measures had a strong influence on classification of dairy herds. Classification of herds based on the WQ-ME model in its current form might lead to a focus on improving these specific measures and divert attention from improving other welfare measures. The role of expert opinion and the type of algorithmic operator used in this model should be reconsidered.
Keywords: Welfare Quality; classification; dairy cattle; multi-criteria evaluation.
Copyright © 2013 American Dairy Science Association. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.