News | 03 Oct 2023

Inspirational idea: Organic experimental farm in Finland testing methods for improved animal welfare

Mustiala Organic Farm collaborates with farmers, researchers and Operational Groups

HAMK Mustiala campus farm is an organic dairy experimental farm in Finland which offers a working environment for research, education and innovation projects. Research institutes, advisory services and agricultural companies cooperate with Mustiala on-site carrying out tests and research activities, many of which are related to animal welfare. 

Today, the farm has 79 dairy cows, 66 young cattle, 20 ha of pasture and a free-stall housing, and it produces its own organic crops for feed on 185 ha of arable land. In terms of the welfare of the animals, Mustiala farm is striving to constantly improve conditions, and testing measures which can be rolled out by farmers. The measures can be grouped into three topics: infrastructure, environment and feed. 

In terms of infrastructure, the cows can lie down comfortably on stall mats which are kept dry with bedding which is spread automatically. A rubber surface in front of the feeding trough on top of the slatted floor was installed. Simo Pärssinen, cattle manager at the farm, explains: “This is because organic production requires half of the surface area available to the animal to be solid. A solid floor is considered to be beneficial for the endurance of the animals.” In the calf area, there are individual pens with solid floors, warm bedding and heat lamps for the youngest calves. The group pens have deep litters, adds Simo and “this provides a firm, dry and warm surface for the calves. In addition, there is less cleaning work. The pens are dried a couple of times a week”. There are three group pens for calving or sick cows, so that they can be kept separate, and there is deep bedding made of straw and peat to provide a non-slip, warm-lying area. They also have a separate milking system so that the cows don’t have to be moved to be milked.

A group of people walking together in a field

As for the environment the cows live in, they can choose to go out all year round. During the summer months, they all go out to pasture, where they also have access to forest areas for cover. In the cow building, the partitions of the calf areas can be removed so that the small calves can get to know their neighbour and can move on to the group pen with a friend, which makes finding their place in the group less stressful. 

As for feed, the calves are fed with whole milk from teat buckets until they reach the age of three months. The pasture is divided into sections, and the animals move daily to a new section in the rotation. Having new grass every day encourages them to graze more.

On the Mustiala farm, the animals have a lot of contact with people. The farm holds many open days. As Simo puts it: “The cows are calm and easy to handle. Students are on duty every week, and so these animals see and hear people more often than in other barns. This accustoms the animals to human presence and makes them feel safe. However, sometimes they feel too safe, which can cause leadership problems between humans and animals.” 

Mustalia farm is involved in EIP-AGRI Operational Groups, for example, the Smart drinking cup project. This project is developing a technology to measure cows’ water consumption at an individual level. The placement of the smart drinking cup also provides information on the movements of different cows in different parts of the barn. Monitoring the amount of water a cow drinks can improve the chances of detecting deviations in welfare, behaviour and production more accurately and earlier.

The farm is also involved in activities with projects and initiatives from other EU countries, to share their results and learn from others on a wide scale. For example, it is one of the lighthouse farms in the TP Organics pan-European study on living labs and lighthouse farms in the organic sector in Europe. In September, the Swedish AKIS thematic group and the Finnish AKIS thematic group visited the Mustiala organic farm. The group got to hear how company cooperation and training have been integrated into the studies at Häme University of Applied Sciences. The ‘Smart Drinking Cup’ Operational Group was presented at this event.

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Photos: Mustiala organic farm