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♦ Stay Ahead of the Game with Animal Welfare
♦ Stay Ahead of the Game with Animal Welfare

By Marcia Endres, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota

Animal welfare has been in the headlines. But what exactly is animal welfare? According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, "Animal welfare refers  to the state of the animal. Ensuring animal welfare includes consideration of all aspects of animal wellbeing, such as proper housing, management, nutrition, disease prevention and treatment, responsible care, humane handling, and, when necessary, humane euthanasia." Most dairy producers are already doing the right things in relation to dairy well-being, but how do consumers know that? Here are a few options for putting your dairy's best foot forward in the public eye.

Be Open
Tell your story via a website or social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs), invite visitors to the dairy, hold picnics on the farm or get involved in outreach programs offered by local agricultural advocacy groups. Start with the youngest consumers by volunteering in classrooms at your local school or hosting field trips. Consumers need to see what a dairy farm is all about. What better way than to show them the business you are proud to operate?

Be Proactive
Enroll in the FARM program. Launched in the fall of 2009, the National FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Dairy Well-Being program from the National Milk Producers Federation and Dairy Management Inc. has a goal of documenting for retailers and consumers what most dairy producers are already doing in relation to animal care.

The program includes three stages: 1) education and self-assessment, 2) evaluation, and 3) third-party verification. For the second stage, each farm will be evaluated once every three years by a second party evaluator, who could be the herd veterinarian or milk co-op field personnel. A statistical sample of all dairy farms on the program will be selected every year, starting in late 2011 or 2012, to have third-party verification by a representative who is not involved with the dairy.

Areas assessed in the FARM program include standard operating procedures, training and record keeping, calf care, animal health, nutrition, environment and facilities, handling, movement and transportation, special needs animals, and dairy beef. The recommended best practices or guidelines are summarized in the Quick Reference User Guide, and more detail is provided in the animal care manual, both available at the FARM website:

Keep in mind some numbers suggested in the guide for outcome-based measurements (such as locomotion, hock lesion and hygiene scores) are only guidelines and not standards. When producers do the self-assessment or have the evaluation by the second party, there might be some practices that are not being done on the dairy. This provides an opportunity to further improve animal care. In the end everyone wins - the cow, the producer, and the consumer (who wants to be assured good care is the standard on farms).

Be Thorough
Various stories of supposed animal abuse on dairy farms have been released to the media in recent months. Those stories can make consumers concerned about animal care on the farm. On May 26, Gary Conklin of Plain City, Ohio, was horrified to view undercover video footage of animal abuse shot at his family's  dairy, "We absolutely couldn't believe it, we were devastated. I did not, nor did any family members, have any knowledge of what was going on." Conklin shared his experiences with AgriTalk listeners last month. "It has been extremely difficult," he says.

Producers need to thoroughly screen job applicants. Once hired, it is important to know how the employee works with the animals. A written animal handling policy should be in place at all dairies. The animal handling procedures and policies need to be reviewed with each employee. Employees should be held accountable and know that a zero tolerance for animal abuse is in place. Any act considered inappropriate needs to be reported to management. It is also important to train new employees on animal handling practices and procedures.

Some employees might feel uncomfortable working with a large animal like a dairy cow if they didn't grow up on a farm. They should be taught that cows are, for the most part, very tame and have been selected for good temperament. Precaution around livestock is warranted, but there is no need to hit an animal that is behaving normally. Cows can easily be moved without yelling, hitting or prodding. Slow and quiet should be the rule when moving cattle. This concept needs to be taught to everyone. It will also help improve the health and productivity of the herd.

Be Honest
Consumer concern for animal care is on the rise, and it is not going to go away. The majority of dairy producers provide optimum care and management of their animals. As an industry and an individual, we can be proactive showing consumers and retailers the real truth.

August 2010