More pounds of milk, fewer days open, lower somatic cell counts, better feed efficiency. Production and profitability are the centers around which most dairy producers base their decisions, and we generally believe that this focus also accounts for cow health and comfort. However, our customers are demanding that the physical and emotional well-being of the cow comes first and foremost.
“Animal welfare needs to put cows at the center,” said Jen Walker, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVPM, director of dairy stewardship for Dean Foods, as she addressed Midwest Dairy and Beef Animal Well-being Conference in Kimberly on March 8. UW-Extension hosted the event.
In the past, the defining animal welfare was somewhat subjective; today, animal scientists like UW’s Dr. Amy Stanton are devoting their research to determining scientific metrics that validate an animal’s well-being.
“We can gain insight into what cattle think,” she explained, by studying animal behavior and physiological effects. Looking at behavioral findings of where cattle choose to lay down, for example, they select a dry stall over a wet stall and cement over cold, wet mud. Stress can be recognized by measuring cortisol response or body temperature changes. Such observations can be used to assess the evidence of pain and response to relief.
Recommendations based off of these scientific findings will continue to provide the basis for animal welfare standards. “Without science-based objective outcomes and required action, the welfare of the animals will not improve,” said Walker. While audit and certification programs currently exist, some are viewed by consumers as having “no teeth,” or not effective means by which to improve overall wellness.
The animal welfare conversation goes beyond science. Consumers want to be assured that farmers are satisfying not only the animal’s physical needs for basic health and function, but also the emotional needs to enjoy feelings of pleasure or to be free from suffering.
“The animal welfare conversation is more than science, it is more than economics, it’s about ethics,” said Walker.
“Science can’t make value statements. Society makes that decision,” agreed Stanton. The people who buy products decide whether or not they are going to trust us, and they out-number producers.
Building that trust is based on shared beliefs and core values, added Walker. Consumers want to know that farm animals are being treated well because producers genuinely care for their well-being, not because of the profitability attached to it. A statement like “if we don’t’ take good care of our cows, they don’t produce (economically)” implies to consumers that “we are only in it for the money.”
“We are seen by customers today as being self-serving,” she said. “We need to say ‘we take good care of cows because it is the right thing to do.’”
Stanton agreed, “They want to hear that we are doing the right thing.”
However, pretty words are not enough; concerned consumers expect producers to be transparent, authentic and honest. “If you say you are doing it, be ready to prove it,” Walker added. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
She went on to point out conflict between some of the messages the dairy industry uses to gain consumer confidence compared to actual industry statistics. For example, some stated guidelines for dairy animal care target less than 10 percent lameness. In reality, the 2007 National Animal Health Monitoring Systems (NAHMS) report revealed that 23.9 percent of cows are lame, and 20 percent of farms reported lameness at a rate of 25 to 50 percent.
Other messages state that dehorning is performed “in the first couple of weeks of a calf being born,” and done in accordance with best industry practices for “the comfort and safety of an animal through sedation or anesthesia.” To put those statements to the test, statistics show that the average age of disbudding is 7.6 weeks, not a “couple,” which makes it more painful. On top of that, less than 20 percent of calves are provided pain relief during the procedure.
Walker cautioned producers to be careful that their actions back up their words. “When trust is lost, there are consequences,” she warned.
Stanton’s initiatives at UW include continued research on understanding animals’ needs and addressing concerns related to other dairy welfare issues.
“There are a few Achilles’ heels weighing us down,” she noted. In addition to lameness and dehorning, topics such as calf mortality, downed animals, confinement and other surgical procedures like tail docking are on the list. Her work centers around designing facilities that are best practices for cow comfort, rather than producer efficiency.
As a step toward improving animal welfare on the farm, Stanton encourages producers to start by shifting their focus and that of their employees. Instead of looking at the speed at which a job can be done, the cow should come first. For example, if a worker is pushing a group of cows into the parlor and one goes down, they may continue pushing the rest of the cows because their focus is getting the group where they need to be quickly. This mentality, however, neglects animal well-being, and could result in the down cow being trampled and injured. An animal welfare-based approach means training employees on how to handle that situation to ensure the safety of the down cow above all other things.
Walker, too, emphasized the “cow-centered” approach, saying, “Treating farm animals well does not make them out pets… it makes us good stewards and good human beings.”