Animal Welfare: Stay Informed, Maintain Best Practices
Janice C. Swanson
California’s passage of Proposition 2 has catalyzed reactions and discussions about possible referenda and policy-making in several states about animal welfare. Michigan dairy farmers must use approved practices and advancements in animal care and handling to maintain an outstanding reputation with the public.
California Proposition 2 has placed the food animal industries squarely in the political headlights. Numerous talks, advice, and strategizing have taken place since the second Tuesday of November, 2008. Passing with a 63% majority, Prop 2 sent a clear signal that change is coming and coming fast.
The focus of Prop 2 was clearly on veal calves raised for meat (plus sow gestation crates and caged hens). The California dairy industry appeared to be given a bye. But, a new legislative bill rapidly developed on banning a specific procedure --- tail docking, used in some dairies. The Illinois General Assembly has a bill similar to the California proposed ban on tail-docking on the docket. Dairy farms are clearly a focus.
Maine is the latest state to sign into law a bill containing nearly identical language to California Proposition 2. State by state the precedents are being set in a similar manner. Why? The language is simple, easy to understand and fundamentally hard to disagree with.
What should livestock producers consider in light of these events? First, is there any truth to the reasons given for concern? If one cites science as a basis for decision making, are you in tune with the science? What do you understand about the ethical basis for the concern? Consider the example of tail docking of dairy cattle.
Unfortunately actual scientific evidence to support the claims was scant. Subsequently, research studies conducted in Australia, New Zealand, and in the U.S. at the University of Wisconsin, University of California-Davis, Purdue University and USDA-ARS Livestock Behavior Research Unit now indicate little or no correspondence to the often cited benefits on animal or human well-being and health. A comprehensive review of this scientific literature by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) led to a policy statement that does not support tail docking as a routine management practice (see tail docking in cattle backgrounder at www.avma.org/issues/animal_welfare/backgrounders.asp).
The AVMA opposes routine tail docking of cattle. Current scientific literature indicates that routine tail docking provides no benefit to the animal, and that tail docking can lead to distress during fly seasons. When medically necessary, amputation of tails must be performed by a licensed veterinarian. (www.avma.org/issues/policy/animal_welfare/tail_docking_cattle.asp)
Published, peer-reviewed scientific articles written by respected scientists have reached similar conclusions (articles available upon request to the author).
The message here is that when science cannot support a practice it may be best to abandon it or look for alternatives. Pick your battles carefully. The insistence to continue a practice when it is ill-supported scientifically and by the veterinary medical community casts doubt on the ethical bearings of an industry. Consequently, public confidence can be easily manipulated and eroded.
What consumers think
The dairy industry (National Dairy Animal Well-Being Coalition) is implementing national animal care standards and has adopted a professional ethic with respect to the treatment and care of dairy cattle (www.dairywellbeing.org/guidelines.php). Use these principles or other well-constructed programs to form the basis of your philosophical approach to dairy farming. Whether your system is large or small, certified organic or not, pasture-based or confinement, the routine care and welfare of dairy cattle should always be a high priority.
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