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Addressing animal welfare doesn’t have to be complicated

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 01 April 2016
Addressing animal welfare

Animal welfare is more than simply understanding animal health; however, by learning what it means to farmers, veterinarians, customers and consumers, you might find it’s also not as complex as some people make it out to be.

 “It’s pretty simple. We don’t need to make it complicated,” Jennifer Walker said at the 2015 Western Canadian Dairy Seminar in Red Deer, Alberta.

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As a veterinarian and director of dairy stewardship for Dean Foods, a large milk processing company with 65 processing plants across the U.S., Walker shared her unique perspective of what animal welfare means to members of the agricultural community and other industry stakeholders.

Addressing animal welfare is a matter of understanding different perspectives.

“You need to be willing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” she said. “What you would rank as your top welfare concern on the farm is going to be different from your veterinarian, which will be different than your average consumer, which might be different than a customer along the supply chain.”

What is animal welfare?

Animal welfare is about quality of life. It is not a question of animal rights. It exists on a continuum from really good to really bad or, in other words, from having a life worth living to a life worth avoiding.

“We can spend hours debating how exactly to define animal welfare. The exact definition is probably less important than understanding what it encompasses,” Walker said.

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It goes beyond the animal’s physical health to also consider the animal’s nature and emotional health. Good animal welfare strives to balance all three.

Animal welfare matters to agriculture because when welfare is compromised, the industry is less efficient. Animal welfare improves food safety, food quality, public health, research and sustainability.

Animal welfare is more than science. It’s more than economics. Animal welfare is fundamentally about ethics, she said.

“We simply cannot defend our practices with pounds because it’s not necessarily true. It doesn’t stand up to public scrutiny, and it makes us appear ingenuine,” Walker said.

In today’s world, trust is kept with transparency, and transparency requires accountability.

According to Walker, “Our ability to maintain this social license to benefit from animals is dependent on maintaining consumer trust.”

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She continued, “Today, trust is supported by science and economics, but the foundation of consumer trust is believing businesses are grounded in shared core beliefs.

To maintain that trust, we have to align with these beliefs of fairness, compassion and simply doing the right thing. We have to accept accountability on all fronts.”

What should farmers do?

The first step is to be your own worst critic and evaluate your animal welfare environment. As an industry, we also need to ask the right questions. How is cow comfort on your farm?

Are you disbudding your calves or are you dehorning? When you are, are you providing pain medication? Are the cows you are sending to slaughter in acceptable condition? What is your lameness rate?

“On average across the U.S., Canada and the EU, nearly 25 percent of our cows are lame. How does that look? Is that our example of how much we care? Is that sustainable?” she asked.

“Imagine if you were CEO of a company ... and you received a report stating 25 percent of your employees suffered a substantial work-related injury that affected their ability to work. Do think they would write that off as a cost of doing business? Do you think that would just be allowed to become normal?” Walker said.

After taking a critical look, it is time to prioritize what needs to be done. “We’re not going to fix everything today or even tomorrow. We have to prioritize,” she said.

To do so, it helps to consider the main pressure points from consumers. Walker said it all boils down to four things:

  1. Consumers don’t like it when we do painful things without providing relief from pain.

  2. They don’t like it when we remove parts for no apparent reason.

  3. They don’t like it when we keep animals in small spaces.

  4. They don’t like it when we euthanize animals in ways that are (or appear) inhumane.

She encouraged dairy producers to actively engage their veterinarian on the farm again. Don’t just have the veterinarian do pregnancy checks or write protocols.

It should be the veterinarian’s responsibility to see that the dairy is following protocols and, more importantly, the protocols are actually working.

“Your veterinarian has to become your farm’s animal health and welfare management professional,” Walker said.

To improve animal welfare, everyone in the industry needs to avoid some of its greatest pitfalls. “Our communication and our responses have become one of our weak spots as a dairy industry,” she said.

“We can’t continue to pass the buck. We can’t claim ignorance or, worse, lay blame on someone else or claim there was just one bad apple.”

The old adage of “taking good care of the cows so they will take care of you” comes up short with consumers. Instead, Walker said they hear, “Well, if you could not treat your cows well and still make money, you would.”

“Our message as a dairy industry should be and must be: ‘We take care of our cows because it’s the right thing to do. Period.’ And even more importantly, our behaviour has to reflect that message consistently,” she said.

Consumers don’t want to hear the dairy industry’s “story”; instead they want to hear the truth. Walker said, “The only answers that will resonate with consumers today are these: I accept responsibility for making sure that my cows are well cared for."

"It is my responsibility to make sure the people who work for me know what the right thing to do is and are held accountable for doing it."

"Yes, I will embrace accountability whether through animal welfare audits or compliance programs; we will document what we do and how we act.”

Consumers don’t want to hear blame. For instance, don’t blame the images in an abuse video on one bad employee or that it was staged. A culture needs to be established on every farm on how animals should be treated.

“If any of your employees are asked or goaded into doing something stupid, their only response should be, ‘Not on this farm," Walker said.

“There will come a time when firing people is not going to be good enough. How many times do you think that we can be forgiven for being asleep at the wheel? I’m telling you today that we are just about done.”

Consumers don’t want to hear excuses. Certain farm practices, whether they are “approved,” standard or common, are simply not acceptable. No amount of educating consumers about the industry will change that.

“We’re not going to educate our way out of things like dehorning without pain medication, tail docking, too many lame cows or sending poor-condition cows to slaughter. It’s not going to happen. These are the things we can genuinely do a better job at,” Walker said.

Last, but not least, members of the dairy industry need to take the high road. The public already knows how crazy the crazy people are; don’t jump in the mud pit with them, she said.

Looking at the big picture, farmers need to build trust by showing the public they share the common values of fairness, compassion and doing the right thing, even when no one is looking. That is accomplished by communicating and acting with transparency and by holding ourselves and each other accountable.

Dairy producers should not get caught up in recognizing their shortcomings. While it is necessary to be a critic, it is also important to quickly turn to focus on the solution.

Walker quoted Maya Angelou when she said, “You must ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.’” Ultimately, all the consumer wants to know is that dairy farmers treat their animals with care and kindness.

Walker closed by saying “We’re obliged to treat these animals in our care with kindness – not because they have rights but precisely because they don’t. Because they stand before us powerless, unequal and, for all that they give us and for all that we take,

I believe we owe them. We owe them a good life and we owe them a good death. That’s really all anybody wants. It’s not that complicated.”  PD

PHOTO: Cows at a feedbunk. Photo provided by Fredric Ridenour.

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