Consumers Care About Animal Care; Show Them You Do Too

This article originally appeared in the Farm Credit East 2016 Insights and Perspectives report. It was written by Jamie Jonker, vice president of sustainability & scientific affairs, at the National Milk Producers Federation.

“This farm is my business and none of yours!” It’s not hard to imagine hearing that response from a farmer a generation or two ago if a consumer asked about animal care on their farm. Some might even think this is an appropriate attitude today. However, expectations of customers and consumers have moved beyond merely trusting that a farmer is caring for animals properly, to asking for more transparency about production practices and demanding changes in some of those practices.

The roster of standard operating procedures and recommended practices on livestock and poultry farms is evolving, which is really nothing new. What is new is that this evolution is increasingly driven by both measurable animal welfare outcomes and by societal pressures about what is acceptable, as expressed by the clear and unequivocal expectations of our customers. The trust previously granted to farmers has been eroded, in part, by a continued barrage of coordinated campaigns promulgated by animal rights groups. In one recent study, more than half the respondents strongly agreed with the statement, “If farm animals are treated decently and humanely, I have no problem consuming meat, milk and eggs.” However, only one in four agreed that, “U.S. meat is derived from humanely treated animals.”

The consequences of not acting prudently and proactively on controversial animal care issues, but rather only reactively and defensively, can be seen on an almost daily basis. Whether through activist activity, customer requests, or for marketing distinctions, major U.S. companies are making increasing demands to change animal care and drug-use practices on poultry and livestock farms. By 2022, McDonald’s will only buy pork from farmers that do not use gestation crates. Chick-fil-A will only purchase products from poultry that have never received antibiotics for any reason by 2019. Wendy’s will use only cage-free eggs by 2020 . Additionally, state laws have been enacted outlawing some production practices. Tail docking of cattle and horses has been illegal in California since 2009.

Industry Response

Every livestock and poultry sector has on-farm animal care and drug-use programs to assist farmers in meeting these marketplace demands on production practices. These programs began decades ago as “Quality Assurance Programs,” educational programs focused on animal health and residue avoidance to improve the quality and safety of livestock products, and just as important, to increase the bottom line of farmers. Today, these have evolved into evaluation and certification programs where on-farm practices can be assessed and educational assistance provided to meet marketplace demands on production practices, while still helping to increase the bottom line of farmers. Links to these programs can be found at the conclusion of this article.

Nearly 10 years ago, the dairy industry saw a need for a national, industry-led, science-based animal care program. In 2009, the National Milk Producers Federation, with assistance from Dairy Management Incorporated (the dairy industry checkoff organization), created the National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program. Based on earlier guidelines from the Dairy Quality Assurance Center, the FARM program helps manage and direct these mounting animal care and drug-use pressures so that dairy farmers are not constantly whipsawed by demands from the marketplace. The FARM Program includes education, evaluation and thirdparty verification for the dairy industry to provide the transparency and rigor that any animal care program must use to build consumer trust.

To continue being relevant to customers and consumers, animal care standards need to adapt and change over time. It is important to defend practices that are defensible, critique those that are not, and exercise the wisdom and discretion to differentiate the two. This approach led to the decision in fall 2015 to accelerate the phase-out requirement for tail docking on dairy farms enrolled in the FARM Program. The deadline to end tail docking was moved up from 2022 to 2017, after which it will no longer be an acceptable practice.

When leading veterinary groups condemn routine tail docking, and no research exists to justify its practice from a milk quality or animal health standpoint, it becomes impossible to promote as credible a program that allows docking to continue. This decision effectively eliminated individual customers from enacting their own differing supply requirements for tail docking while retaining the integrity of a national industry-led, science-based animal care program — employed now by more than 90 percent of the U.S. milk supply in the nation. The practice is also no longer used in many major dairy exporting countries like New Zealand, and is banned by law in countries including Netherlands and Germany.

While transparency in animal care is new, quality animal care has always been the first and foremost focus for farmers. Farmers have a great story to tell when it comes to animal care on their farms. The goal of animal-care programs, like the FARM Program, is not to be an additional burden for farmers, but rather to collect the data that provides positive proof of what we already know to be true: farmers take excellent care of their animals. For dairy farmers, this quote from W. D. Hoard (1885 Hoard’s Dairyman) rings as true today as it did 130 years ago: 

“The rule to be observed in this stable at all times, toward the cattle, young and old, is that of patience and kindness. A man’s usefulness in a herd ceases at once when he loses his temper and bestows rough usage. Men must be patient. Cattle are not reasoning beings. Remember that this is the Home of Mothers. Treat each cow as a Mother should be treated. The giving of milk is a function of Motherhood: rough treatment lessens the flow. That injures me as well as the cow. Always keep these ideas in mind in dealing with my cattle.”

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