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Farm Animal Welfare Evaluations

Craig Thomas
Extension Dairy Educator, Eastern Michigan

Introduction
When you take a trip on an airliner don’t you want to be reasonably sure the pilot is certified to fly the plane? Don’t you want to be reasonably sure he or she has passed a medical exam, knows all about the inner workings of the aircraft’s various systems, knows how to take off and land the plane, knows how to navigate the plane to the intended destination? You also would probably have some concerns as to whether or not the plane has been serviced by mechanics who took some sort of certification program.

Further, what would you think of an airline that refused to show proof that their pilots and mechanics were properly trained and indeed follow approved procedures and regulations? I believe the vast majority of us would refuse to buy a ticket from an airline that refused to provide us these assurances of safety, capability, and confidence.

Consumer Confidence
These days consumers all over the country are concerned about how their food is produced. They especially want assurances that animals are treated in a reasonable and humane manner. You and I are closely connected to animal agriculture and its production processes. We understand that modern animal husbandry methods are designed in the animals’ best interest, because mistreated animals are unproductive and unproductive animals are unprofitable. This “positive” story doesn’t sell newspapers or generate traffic to Internet sites. Sensationalism sells. That’s why headlines were made by the downer cow incident at Westland/Hallmark Meat Company in California (1) and by the “hidden camera” videos of cattle mistreated on an Ohio dairy farm (2).

Unfortunately the vast majority of consumers have no idea what transpires on modern farms. Instead their views are shaped and forged by these sensationalized incidents perpetrated by “bad actors” that represent only a tiny fraction of animal agriculture.

Should We Do Something? What?
How should the dairy industry respond to this situation? Do we hide our heads in the sand and pretend the problem and challenges don’t exist? Should we take the approach that consumers will just have to “get over it”? Some farm organizations are taking a more positive and proactive approach. For example, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and Dairy Management Incorporated have created an evaluation program called the National Dairy FARM Program™ (3). It is not an audit or certification program per se.

The program’s stated purpose is “to bolster consumer trust and confidence in the U.S. dairy industry and demonstrate the industry’s commitment to the highest levels of animal care and quality assurance” (3). Here is another paragraph from NMPF’s National Dairy FARM Program™ web site describing the program:

“Consumers want to purchase food from sources they know will take care of animals, and operate in a way that is consistent with their values and expectations. Dairy farmers have a longstanding commitment to doing what is right. The National Dairy FARM Program: Farmers Assuring Responsible Management™ provides consistency and uniformity to best practices in animal care and quality assurance in the dairy industry. The dairy industry is committed to ensuring the well-being of the animals in our care. The National Dairy FARM Program™ is a nation-wide, verifiable program that addresses animal well-being. Third-party verification ensures the validity and the integrity of the program to our customers and consumers. The dairy industry has an excellent track record of responsible management practices; this national effort simply brings consistency and uniformity to on-farm care and provides reassurance to consumers.”

The NMPF’s National Dairy FARM Program™ is based on principles and guidelines outlined in the National Dairy Animal Well-Being Initiative (NDAWI). The NDAWI principles and guidelines were developed through a producer-led effort and more information on them can be found at www.dairywellbeing.org. The “Caring For Dairy Animals” manual is the basis for the NMPF National Dairy FARM program and incorporates the NDAWI principles and guidelines. 

Dairy Farm Evaluation
The National Dairy FARM manual consists of a series of standard operating procedures and protocols that encompass every aspect of dairy farm management that directly impacts animal care and handling. It also includes employee training recommendations and various record keeping systems that would be needed by producers to accomplish the goals of the program.

At the heart of this program is the evaluation of individual dairy farms which would involve an on-farm evaluation by an outside party (e.g., veterinarian, Extension educator, on co-op field person trained to perform the evaluation). The “Caring For Dairy Animals” manual would provide the guidelines used to evaluate the status of the farm.

This manual covers such aspects of management as newborn calf care, nutrition, animal health, environment and facilities, handling, movement and transportation, and special-needs animals. My perusal of the manual suggests to me that most dairy farms already follow the majority of these recommended standard operating procedures and protocols. Thus, in most cases the on-farm evaluation would serve basically to document the already acceptable animal care and management practices currently used on the farm.

Additionally, the National Dairy FARM Program™ has a third-party verification component. To access information on these programs go to the MSU Extension Dairy Team web site and go to the “Consumer” page and click on the “Animal Well-Being” button.

Participation in Program
Producers can contact their milk cooperative or processor representative to ask about participation in the National Dairy FARM program.  For producers who would participate independently, information, including associated fees, can be accessed at www.nationaldairyfarm.com. Ultimately, I suspect that the retail side of the dairy business will require co-ops and other milk suppliers to ensure that all farms in their supply chain meet these animal welfare guidelines.

Conclusion
So, will you view animal welfare evaluation as an inconvenience or an opportunity? Perhaps in the end it will be a necessity. But don’t pass up the opportunity to use the process to draw on the expertise of other dairy professionals to improve your management practices and help you identify any weaknesses in your farm business. In general, viewing evaluation, audits and certification programs in this light may enable you to more than offset their costs.

References:

1. Wald, Matthew L. 2008. Meat Packer Admits Slaughter of Sick Cows. New York Times; 3/13/08 (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/13/business/13meat.html?_r=1&ref=westlandhallmark_meat_company).

2. CBS/AP. 2010. $100K Bond Set For Ohio Man in Cow Abuse Case. CBS NEWS; 5/27/09 (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/05/27/national/main6523923.shtml).

3. National Milk Producers Federation. 2010.  National Dairy FARM Program.  (http://www.nationaldairyfarm.com/).

 





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