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Dairy industry, consumers seek quality animal care

By Staff | Mar 6, 2020



Animal welfare on livestock farms has come under scrutiny in the past few years as stories of abuse and neglect have surfaced to a public that wants to understand what happens on the farms producing the food they are consuming.

Consumers and supply chain buyers alike have been asking food producers to seek out ways to ensure the quality care of their animals.

The dairy industry is responding to those concerns by asking that its producers follow specific guidelines to ensure their animals are being cared for properly.

FARM is an industry-led dairy animal care program from the National Milk Producers Federation that stands for “Farmers Assuring Responsible Management.” It has been around for 10 years or so, and standards for the program continue to be updated every three years.

“The FARM Program holds all producers to this expectation of continuous improvement,” said Dr. Jennifer Van Os, assistant professor and extension specialist-animal welfare, in the Department of Dairy Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “The dairy industry should maintain a high bar and seek to encourage best practices.”

Van Os said resources that train employees in the various fashions of calf care have been created by extension educators at universities in both Iowa and Nebraska, and they fit in with the new expectations of the current version of the FARM Program.

“Everybody on the farm that works with animals, whether they are a family member or a hired employee, now need to show documentation of annual continuing education in proper animal care,” said Van Os.

She said that education can involve different options, but its purpose remains strong.

“We want to demonstrate to our supply chain stakeholders that everybody on the farm takes animal care as part of their responsibility, and that they are receiving the latest information on what appropriate practices are,” said Van Os. “It needs to be documented somewhere on the farm.”

She said another expectation of the current FARM Program is that calves be ‘disbudded’ by eight weeks of age.

“It’s not a new requirement-it’s just that if you are not doing that now, you’re expected to show that you’re doing that with a nine-month corrective time frame,” said Van Os.

She said the other change for the current FARM Program is the expectation that producers work with their veterinarians at the time of disbudding to provide some form of pain control. Pain medications must come with a prescription from the veterinarian.

Why ‘animal welfare?’

Van Os said that phrase sometimes carries a negative connotation, but the global scientific community uses that term-as opposed to animal ‘well-being’ or ‘cow comfort.’

“All ‘welfare’ means is how well an animal is faring. Its important that we use that word because it shows we’re grounded in science and assessing how that animal is doing and not just passing judgement on environment, facilities, management, etc.,” she said.

The focus of animal welfare centers around an animal’s overall health, its emotional state and its behavioral well-being.

“Consumers often have questions not just about an animals’ health, but how (an animal) is feeling,” said Van Os, adding that science shows animals can experience pain, fear or contentment. “Consumers want to know if an animal is living a good life and that they are able to perform important behaviors and are being cared for appropriately for their species and life stage.”

Van Os said even though the food chain moves in one specific direction, expectations for animal care can move in the opposite direction. Consumers have many choices, and she said that can mean people won’t always choose to purchase dairy-based products.

“Because of that we have to listen to their questions, concerns and expectations,” said Van Os. “The FARM Program started out as a producer-education program but a lot of the decisions about animal care that are affecting dairy producers are coming from corporate decision-makers. This FARM Program helps corporate buyers be assured that their corporate expectations for animal care are met.”

The FARM Program’s goals ultimately assure consumers and customers that dairy farmers care for their animals, workforce and land in a humane and ethical manner.

“It establishes a framework for things we’ve decided as an industry are important because once we say these are our priorities, we can measure how we’re doing relative to those expectations, then we can manage towards improving,” said Van Os.

The FARM Program quantifies improvements by having an evaluator come to the farm and observe the overall condition of the cows in their environment. The current FARM Program seeks less than 5 percent of lameness in a dairy cow herd.

“Of course, we don’t want to see any lame cows, so in the next (few) years that target number will get lower and lower because more and more farms will be able to achieve that,” said Van Os.

Evaluators of dairy herds are also looking for signs of neglect, hygiene, body condition score (BCS), injured hocks and knees, and broken tails. The current FARM Program also states that tail docking is no longer acceptable, with the exception of medical reasons-which would be decided by a veterinarian.

“This is a chance to demonstrate to the people in the supply chain that dairy producers take animal care seriously and it’s something we’re proud of we want to be doing the best for the animals, and this is a way we can document that,” said Van Os.

Van Os said dairy producers are not required by law to follow these practices, but the push comes from within the industry, and is enforced through the supply chain.

“The processors are the ones who decide that the farms need to participate, so if the farm refuses to participate, they won’t have anyone to sell their milk to,” she said.

She added that 98 percent of the U.S. milk supply comes from farms that follow the standards set by the National Milk Producers Federation’s FARM Program.

Van Os added that there are few things that would immediately ‘blacklist’ a dairy producer. Rather, this program is meant to quantify and show improvement within a dairy herd and its management.

She concluded that animal welfare in other countries is more legislatively-based, especially during the last 50-60 years starting in Europe.

“In the U.S., that’s not our model. We want to avoid having federal or state regulations that tell farms how to raise their animals, so (the dairy industry) recognized that we need to be pro-active and decide as an industry what our expectations are. Any dairy producer who cares about their animals doesn’t like to see a black eye on their industry, so this is a way to be pro-active and say, ‘Here’s what we find as acceptable, and it’s grounded in science,” said Van Os.

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