Animal welfare a risk for the future of the dairy industry

"Milk producers need to engage with the public and address the animal welfare concerns that arise. We need to make sure that our on-farm practices haven’t fallen out of step with the main stream values in our society." At the IDF World Dairy Summit in Parma, Dan Weary from the Animal welfare program at the University of British Columbia gave his presentation Identifying and addressing animal welfare issues that undermine the societal sustainability of dairy farming.

Strong base of research to deal with production diseases

Dan Weary started by highligthing the most common animal welfare concerns that almost all producers and the industry recognizes: production and health issues like mastitis and lameness.

“These are issues that the dairy industry has been struggling with for years. Some of them are getting better, and some of them are getting worse, probably since we see more free stalls” he says.

Lameness is a big problem for the dairy industry, with a prevalence of over 30%. There are regional differences, and also a wide variation between farms. This means that some are very successful in controlling lameness on their farm. Weary showed an example where producers could benchmark with each other, and with their own results as evidence were motivated to change their practices.

Lameness is a good example of a welfare issue where there is a strong base of research to help addressing the problem, e.g the studies that have been done on the effects of housing on lameness. One study shows that with simple modifications like moving the neck rail from 130 cm to 190 cm one risk factor can be taken away – standing in slurry on concrete. So there is an existing infrastructure and plenty of research from the dairy sciences to move forward with these issues.

“We still have problems, we continue to struggle with lameness and mastitis, but we have the means to continue to make progress in those areas,” says Dan Weary.

According to Dan the links between scientists, extension and producers are good, but could be even better, and using benchmarking studies is a very useful method to change practices as nobody really wants to be at the bottom of the list.

Less discussed animal welfare concerns are also important

Dan Weary continued by highligthing the issues that the dairy industry hasn’t yet recognized as important welfare concerns. Pain and stress for the animals and discussions about a more natural environment for the cows are not issues that are commonly discussed in the industry.

He took dehorning of calves as an example of a practice that can easily get the public’s negative attention if not done correctly. There are simple instructions on how to dehorn calves while at the same time minimizing pain and stress. These guidelines and others need to be followed. One example is the Code of Practice for the care and handling of Dairy Cattle

According to Dan Weary we need to start by doing the right thing, and then show that we are doing it right. We need to open the doors of our dairy farms and open the lines of communication between the dairy industry and the rest of the society. This will give producers an opportunity to get a better sense of where their on-farm practices might have fallen out of step with main stream public values.

One way of bringing consumers and producers together is to have real or virtual town hall meetings. The Animal welfare program created an online meeting place where hot topics related to dairy farming could be discussed. People could state their views, vote on the views of others, and “let the best arguments float to the top”. One of the issues being discussed was tail docking. Read more about the results of this project here.

By bringing people together in the same room to discuss these ‘nasty’ issues, you start understanding the reasons behind their practices. Some of these reasons fit well with scientific research, while others may be wrong. This understanding of their reasoning is important in order to learn how to change the practices. It provides the industry with useful social science data.

What do we do next?

Short term, the proven welfare solutions that we have, pain control and lameness prevention, need to be implemented and tail docking needs to be stopped.

Medium term, the implementation needs to be proven, e.g with third party audits. There is also a need to invest in research on practical solutions to other welfare issues, such as transition cow diseases and the embarrassingly high level of calf morbidity and mortality.

“We focus so much on the parlor that it’s hard to get attention in the calf barn. But this is a big concern for the public,” says Dan Weary.

Long term, the industry needs to engage with the public and address the concerns that emerge. Bring producers and consumers together, in virtual or real town hall meetings. This way we can get a shared appreciation of the key issues necessary to provide a good life for dairy cows and produce healthy milk.

Of course, Weary admits, if we open the door and ask the questions we might get answers we don't like, e.g. about pasture access and early calf-cow separation. Then we need to discuss these issues and get a better understanding of them, so that we can push this back to science and producers for solutions that work well for the cows and match the public concerns.

Agriculture a way of life

“One of the big failings in North America is that when people in agriculture realize that the public values are out of step with producer values, we think that all we need to do is to spend more money on advertisement, so that the public will change their mind. So we show pictures of pretty cows. I think this is a waste of money. We, everybody involved in agricultural production need to have our ears open, and engage in the conversation.” says Dan Weary in an interview after his presentation.

He believes that getting the producers to talk to one another, to discuss what it means to be a good farmer is very important. The agricultural economists want us to think that everything we do in agriculture has to result in a maximum profit.

“I don’t think maximizing profit is what the majority of farmers would consider the most important thing about farming. The profits are important, it’s important to stay in business and make a good livelihood. But I think the pride in the way you care for the cows is equally important. Agriculture is not only a way of making money; it’s a way of life.”



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