FARM EVALUATOR SPOTLIGHT: Frank Hartley, Land O’ Lakes, Inc.

First, some background. How long have you been involved in the agriculture – and specifically dairy—industry?

I have been involved in the dairy industry for 34 years, having installed and serviced milking equipment for 10 years. My wife and I ran a 50-cow herd for 25 years. Now, the next generation has joined the farm. My daughter milks a smaller herd of cows and works with my wife to run a custom heifer-raising operation. I have been employed with Land O’ Lakes, Inc., as an FARM Evaluator for the last six years.

In the simplest terms, explain to your average consumer what you do as a FARM Evaluator.

My job is to work with dairy producers to assure consumers that all cattle on dairies are living and receiving the best quality of life possible. By asking the producer a list of questions and then observing all cattle on the farm, any weak animal care issues are identified. From there, I work with the farmer to improve these areas. I will often bring in outside consultants to help where needed.

Walk me through a typical day as a FARM Evaluator. How many hours does it take?

I work with a wide variety of farms. I work with farms with as large as 1,000-2,000 cows, as well as dairies milking 15 cows. Facilities range just as much – from large parlor/freestall barns to robots to small tie stall barns where they milk by hand. Because of this, time spent on the farm varies widely. An average visit runs 2-3 hours. Typically, an appointment is set up ahead of time. Once I arrive, I go through the interview questions with the producer. Then I ask for the total number of cattle on the farm, broken down by age groups. Walking through all of the barns and pastures is next, observing and scoring the cattle as I go. Once this is done, I write a report and share this with the farmer. If there are any areas that need improving, I work with the farmer to come up with an action plan to correct any issues.

What are some of the overall benefits of this job?

Working with such a variety of farms is very interesting to me. Something I enjoy is asking questions when I see something a farmer has done to improve his operation. I ask them how they like it, what they don’t like and how they would do it differently if they could do it over again. Then, on other farms, I am able to help other producers improve their operations by providing them real-life examples of what works and what doesn’t. Producers seem to really appreciate this.

The challenges?

Probably the biggest challenge is working with producers who are cash strapped for whatever reason. Sometimes I see an area that needs a major renovation and the producer is just not able to make a large investment at that time. I then work with the farmer and sometimes consultants to see how we can improve this area in small stages. Maybe at first for little-to-no cost, just a change in management practices. Sometimes having a new set of eyes looking at a problem can help a producer to think out of the box.

Tell me about a particularly rewarding experience while on the job.

During the first round of FARM, I did an evaluation on a farm that had recently moved from a tiestall/pasture facility to a robot/freestall barn facility. While in the tiestall barn, they were trimming cows feet once a year (pasturing cows only needed to trim once a year). Moving to the freestall barn, I noticed they were having a lot of lameness issues. After talking to the producer, I suggested they begin trimming feet at least twice a year. When I returned to the farm for the second round of FARM, the producer informed me that when I was there for the first round, he had 15 cows on his cull list – 11 of them for lameness issues. Since then, they were able to get a foot trimmer and turned all 11 cows around! Stories like this makes me feel I am able to make a difference for the farmers I work with.

What is one thing you often see during your evaluations that you think could use improving?

Young cattle care is probably the biggest area of improvement. That’s not to say everyone is doing a poor job in this area. Often there are a several small things that can be done to improve young cattle care. Routine foot care on mature cattle would be a close second.

As someone who works behind on the scenes, on the farm, what is one thing you would like to tell consumers who are concerned about animal care?

Often times the consumer is told that farmers are all about the money. This could not be further from the truth. There are much easier ways to make a living. No matter what size the operation, dairy farming is a 24/7 job. More than that, it is a lifestyle. Farmers are very compassionate about what they do. Whether it’s caring for a sick cow in the middle of the night or helping a newborn calf drink its first drink (and when the farmer has the flu and should be in bed), animal care and making sure consumers get the safest, freshest product is at the top of their list all the time.

A Tail of Two Tails

Image Source: The Herald Business Journal

This piece was orginally written for Dairy Herd Managment.

Like many dairy producers who pride themselves in always looking for ways to improve their farms, our family first started tail docking in the 1980s, when it became increasingly popular as a means to keep both cows and workers clean—or at least cleaner than before.

Over time, however, we compared notes with our colleagues, who had cows that were just as clean and had just as low SSC, even with their tails intact. We looked at the veterinary science, which said tail docking didn’t really help.

We also saw what was happening in other sectors of livestock agriculture, where production practices have been under the microscope for more than a decade. Reading the articles about colony housing for chickens and pigs, we would breathe a sigh of relief, thinking at least we didn’t face the challenges the egg farmers and the pork producers were confronting.

Here in the northwest, as a co-op director, I have seen firsthand the customer-driven challenges in food sourcing and production that eventually make their way to other parts of the country. The prevailing winds of change in food trends seem to move from the West coast to points farther East. In recent years, these changes have meant additional scrutiny of both our environmental and animal care practices in general and, in particular, this issue of tail docking.

As a progressive milk producer, a few years ago we had to reexamine what was the right thing to do in the area of animal care. Fewer and fewer farms were relying on tail docking. The practice was banned seven years ago in California, yet they are still producing plenty of milk. And we have been getting more questions about it from our cooperative’s major customers.

In 2014, we stopped tail docking.

It wasn’t a unanimous or necessarily popular decision in our family, but we decided to make the change (to switch trimming). This has created an interesting laboratory for our farm, as we still have some docked cows in the herd and the younger stock with the full tails. In comparing the milk production, SCC levels and hygiene of the older cows with the newer ones, we found the differences aren’t meaningful.

Our management practices had to evolve, especially because we have sand-bedded stalls. When the manure is flushed from the alleyways, it creates a messy environment for those tails. But we are managing that issue.

My wife and I recently returned from a visit to our ancestral homeland in the Netherlands. Dairy farmers there are thinking hard about the future of the global dairy market and their position in it. They know they have to compete with fellow farmers elsewhere in Europe, those in New Zealand and with us in the U.S.

Dutch dairy farmers stopped tail docking about 20 years ago, knowing it could give them a competitive edge in world markets. We need to do the smart thing, once again, and think about our future as well.

Editor’s note: Jim and his wife, Dolores, farm in Monroe Washington, in a partnership with Jim’s brother Andy, and his wife, Gloria, where they milk 1,200 cows. He serves on the board of the Northwest Dairy Association cooperative.

The Importance of a Good Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship

This piece was originally written for the American Association of Bovine Practitoners.

There has been much talk with the anticipated rollout of the National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program, about the increased importance of the veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR). While the perception may be that the VCPR is receiving new attention from the FARM Program, the truth is that the critical relationship between a producer and their veterinarian has always been highlighted as one of the most important tenants of FARM.

Since the Program began in 2009, the VCPR has been the first question asked during the FARM Program Second-Party Evaluations, highlighting just how critical this relationship is. The Program looks for producers to have “evidence” of a valid VCPR and often seek out the name and information for their Veterinarian of Record. Our FARM Animal Care Manual states: “A robust and intimate relationship with the farm’s veterinarian is crucial to safeguarding animal care.”

In the next version of the FARM Program, Version 3.0 which is due out January 1, 2017, the requirement will be that producers and their Veterinarians of records sign a VCPR form annually, or more often as needed. It has been a slow build to this point, but all of our technical advisors who help write the Program felt it was crucial to have a VCPR relationship be one that is documented and formally affirmed. The FARM Program is creating sample form for producers to utilize to meet this new guideline, which will be available on the National Dairy FARM Program website.

Beyond a Veterinarian of Records’ signature on the official VCPR form, however, the FARM Program will continue to look to veterinarians to provide more comprehensive and exhaustive services to help producers in meeting the new guidelines of FARM, and in ensuring the best animal care is provided on their dairies overall.

Specifically, the FARM Program requires written protocols on a number of critical animal care topics including pain management, euthanasia, calf care and non-ambulatory cow movement/management. Writing out these protocols—and training to them—can be a task that is done in partnership with a farm’s veterinarian. Producers will need the valuable perspectives on animal health and welfare that veterinarians have to help shape, and make stronger, these critical farm management protocols.

Beyond having in place strong, written protocols, producers will also be looking for experts to help provide training, or insights into how to conduct proper training, to make sure such protocols are followed. This is also an excellent, and much needed, role that the veterinarian can help play. Providing trainings for producers and their employees on key animal health and wellbeing topics will help to ensure that all producers are up to speed on the most relevant best management practices while also helping them meet a new FARM Program requirement: having all employees with animal care responsibilities trained in basic stockmanship as well as their assigned area of responsibility.

To the FARM Program, the VCPR goes so much further than the piece of paper with the required signatures. A familiar, collaborative and cohesive relationship between a farm owner/manager that their veterinarian of record is key to ensuring that animals on dairies nationwide remain healthy and well-cared for. Moreover, a good VCPR will ensure that producers are able to meet the latest requirements of FARM with ease. It is our hope that veterinarians will look comprehensively at the needs to dairies—beyond the prescription pad—to really help ensure that farmers are assuring responsible management in all aspects of herd health and animal care.

To learn more about the changes in the next version of the FARM Program, review sample protocols and the VCPR form, visit the FARM Program website at or contact

Nature: It’s a Cruel World Out There

People may profess a love of the natural world, but when confronted with what that truly entails, not everyone remains so fond of Mother Nature. The Washington Post recently reported on the stark difference between what consumers think occurs within the animal kingdom, and what really does. The story talks about the trend of watching livestreams of actual animal habitats, and the vitriol that erupts when viewers see horrific – but natural – occurrences, like when a mother eagle rejects her baby and lets it starve.

Here’s where the idea of transparency reveals important truths about both people and animals. “Nature” can be cruel and even violent – and that applies to dairy cows. For example, it is natural for some cows to reject their babies, leaving the animal to perish without proper nutrition. On a dairy operation, the farmer will step in and care for the calf separately, giving it the proper care an absent mother could not. This is another example of how a farm setting is actually more humane than the so-called “natural” alternative, because farmers – unlike nature – have a vested interest in keeping their animals alive.

Read a snippet of the Washington Post story below, and read the rest here.


People love watching nature on nest cams — until it gets grisly

The osprey cam at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is trained on a nest near the Massachusetts seaside, and the pair that call it home are now waiting for three eggs to hatch. But for the first spring in a decade, the camera is dark, and a note on the institute’s website offers only a two-sentence explanation.

“Regrettably, the cam will not be operating this season due to the increasingly aggressive actions of certain viewers the last two years,” it begins.

That is a staid reference to cam fans whose emotions about the nest morphed into vitriol — and fighting words. When the osprey mother began neglecting and attacking her chicks in 2014, anxiety exploded among some viewers, as did demands that the institution intervene to save the baby birds. When the same thing happened in 2015, the public passions took a more personal turn.

“It is absolutely disgusting that you will not take those chicks away from that demented witch of a parent!!!!!” one viewer emailed to Jeffrey Brodeur, the communications specialist who ran the camera. Another wrote: “I realize this is nature, but once you put up a cam to view into their worlds it is no longer nature. You have a responsibility to help n save when in need.”

Bird-nest cams have become hugely popular, and spring is when they’re full of action. Millions of viewers log on to see live-streamed egg-laying, egg-incubating and chick-hatching. Along the way, many become attached to the little birds, eager to see them spread their wings and fly.

But nests are also nature, and nature can be nasty. Last month, a Pittsburgh cam’s bald eagles made national news when they fed a small cat to their eaglets.

Many chicks don’t survive their first year: Some starve to death, their carcasses decaying for all the Internet to see. Some are preyed upon by hawks or crows or cats. Some are slain by their nestmates.

And some viewers just can’t handle the tragedy.

Read more…

Tackling Tough Topics: Euthanasia

Krista Stauffer runs a first-generation dairy farm with her husband, Brandon. Stauffer Dairy — located in Washington state — involves roughly 140 Jerseys, Holsteins and Crossbreds. Krista typically blogs about her experiences on the farm on her website, Here, Krista talks about a tough subject all dairy farmers have to deal with – though they hate to do it: euthanasia.

You wrote about your experience euthanizing a cow for Huffington Post. What made you decide to write so publicly about the subject?

I sent the editor several pre-written blog posts as examples they could use, and he picked that specific one. Not exactly something I would have started out with trying to establish myself as a blogger on their site, but also not a topic I shy away from.

And speaking more generally, why is it important that all farmers discuss this subject?

Simply put: It’s part of farming. We should be talking about all aspects of what we do. It is so easy these days for an activist to film daily routines on the farm – and this task could easily be taken out of proportion. Talking about it, making the public aware that sometimes it needs to be done, the fact that it’s the most humane thing to do for a sick or injured animal and the process in which it is done, can help the conversations we have with consumers. It’s all about transparency.

How did you reach the decision to euthanize one of your animals? What went through your head?

Between my husband and me, we can tell you every animal we have had to put down and why. It is the hardest decision you ever have to make on the farm, yet it is also the easiest. Ending the life of an animal you raised from the time they were born, even if they are being raised to feed this growing population, is not easy. But when you know she’s is sick or injured beyond getting better, or in any way, shape or form she is hurting – your job, your responsibility and your No. 1 concern is ending that suffering.

One time, we had a cow that had an aneurysm. I remember, once we determined what was wrong and that the brain damage was actually causing her pain, it felt like forever before Brandon could retrieve the gun to put her down. But it was only a minute or two. I just sat down next to her, holding her head in my lap, crying and talking to this big, black-and-white cow, waiting for him to get back. It was a horrible experience and one I will never forget, but the choice to put her down was an easy one. No animal deserves to suffer. Ever.

What are the actual, procedural steps in euthanizing a dairy cow?

  1. Determine if euthanization is necessary.
  2. End their suffering immediately by euthanization. On our farm, we use a firearm.
  3. Confirming everything was successful and that the animal has passed.

Why did you choose that particular method to euthanize your cow?

We choose to euthanize with a firearm because it is something we can keep on hand if needed immediately, and we know that we can end the suffering with a single shot.

What is the lesson to be learned from euthanizing an animal?

One can hope that there is something to be learned in how to prevent or treat something differently in the future so that you don’t have to put another animal down. There is usually a lesson to be learned in everything, but sometimes there isn’t and accepting that is hard to do.

How did you explain this situation to your children?

We are open and honest about farm life with our kids. We tell them the facts, but keep it simple. When they ask why we had to put an animal down, we explain it to them. They know that it’s never OK to allow an animal to suffer and that it is our job as farmers to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What is something you wish more consumers understood about euthanasia?

Ending an animal’s life is not something we take lightly. To raise an animal from birth, then have them get sick or injured, thus resulting in you having to put them down, is hard. I have cried over many cows, be it by euthanasia or by leaving the farm to enter the food supply chain. As farmers, we take great pride in the care we provide our cattle while they are on our farm, in our care. We know that they had a good life and that is what keeps us pushing forward.

A Vet Asks: Do Healthy Cows Produce More Milk?

Is rising milk production on today’s modern dairies a good or bad sign for cows? Here’s the perspective from a veterinarian in America’s Dairyland.  John Borzillo has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and is a partner in Central Wisconsin Ag Services in Alma Center, Wisconsin. Pictured is Dr. Borzillo in a milk parlor.

I am a managing partner in a growing veterinary practice in Clark County Wisconsin, which seeks to bring in a new generation of veterinarians as well as a diverse selection of services to the region’s many dairy farms. I want to offer my perspective on the animal health trends I see up close and personal, just about every day of the year.

Some who are concerned about animal welfare – as are we – contend that farmers are raising genetically altered cattle that are no longer healthy, viable animals.  In fact, this is a problem – but not a recent one. It dates back several decades to a time long before I started my own practice.  In other words, this is an old problem that might have made for a more timely discussion in the 1970s.

There was a time in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s that cattle were bred selectively for their “milk traits” more than any other single trait.  This meant that cows were bred based on the likelihood their female calves would grow into adult cows that would produce more milk than their mothers.  Somewhere in this process mistakes were made, in that many other traits were often ignored, such as those relating to udder health, hoof and leg structure, body size, etc.

To their credit, it did not take dairy farmers long to realize animals bred exclusively for milk production began to lack longevity. Longevity is not something to ignore if your livelihood is tied to the overall health and well-being of animals – as most dairy farmers’ lives are indeed tied to theirs. So over the course of the past 30+ years, farmers and veterinarians have worked together, with geneticists and a host of other experts, to reverse the mistakes of the past and bring back other important cow traits.  The end result is ongoing improvement in dairy breeds, which allows farmers to benefit from cows that make more milk, while having solid feet, sturdy legs, strong immune systems and proportional body size.

To imply that this is an ongoing problem or that the dairy community is somehow intentionally creating unhealthy animals, couldn’t be further from the truth.  What’s also a distortion is the notion that producing lots of milk, and being a healthy milking cow, are mutually exclusive. This assumption is not only blatantly wrong, but also represents circumstances not seen on most farms.  I personally work with farms that collectively house thousands of cows, all producing very large amounts of milk, while maintaining remarkable cow welfare.  On one farm I work with, each cow produces over 10 gallons of milk each day, but the dairy cows have never been healthier – something I would love to take credit for.

But I cannot, and must give credit where it is due. Comprehending how health and high production can exist together requires an understanding of complex farming operations.  Without going into all the details, modern farming is accomplished by a team of professionals, made up of animal nutritionists, herd staff, milkers, genetic analysts and veterinarians.  It’s this team of professionals, coupled with the hard work and spirit of the American farmer, that strives every single day to continually improve how we care for the animals to make safe food, using science, technology and innovation.

The reality of our world is that American farmers have a big job on their hands.  Not only are they outnumbered 99 to 1, they must provide food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals for our ever-growing population.  In order to meet demand, farms must grow.  But with growth in size, farms do not lose the principles of farming that are so often associated with those picturesque red barns and green pastures.

Large farms – yes, even those who some may refer to as “factory farms” – are still family-owned.  Being family-owned means their farming practices are governed by traditions which promote a solid culture of animal care.  So, in essence, large farms couple family tradition with the ability to employ skilled, 24-hour staff, capable of meeting all the needs of milking cows.  From birth to adulthood, dairy cattle receive exceptional nutrition, comfortable housing and individual care.

Temple Grandin: Setting the Record Straight

The rise in milk output from the typical dairy cow has been one of the constants in the dairy business for many decades, here in the United States, and also in most other developed nations that value dairy cattle genetics. It’s a sign that farmers are doing better with both the nature and the nurture of how cows are bred and raised.

That trend, however, drew some unwanted – and unwarranted – attention last month, when The Washington Post ran an online Wonkblog article insinuating that dairy cows and their genetics were being pushed too hard in an unhealthy direction. The main source for that assertion was Temple Grandin, perhaps the most well-known cattle behavior expert in the world.  So when she says there’s a problem, people take note.

Only, what she told The Post reporter wasn’t really what was reflected in the story.  According to the following letter she recently sent to the Colorado dairy industry, Dr. Grandin didn’t imply that two-thirds of dairies are “bad.” 

What did she really mean? Here is her perspective on dairy farming, in her own words.

Setting the record straight
Temple Grandin

The Wonkblog article “Why a top animal science expert is worried about the milk industry” by Roberto Ferdman has caused considerable discussion among the dairy industry and academia. My purpose in this writing is to clarify what was said and what are my opinions of the dairy industry.

The premise of Mr. Ferdman’s 15-minute phone interview with me was to help explain the graphs showing the decrease in number of dairy cows and the increase in production per cow. During the interview I praised the excellent Colorado dairies I visited with Bill Wailes prior to his death. I also indicated that, in my opinion, excellent dairies like these represent a third of the dairies in the United States. This was interpreted by Mr. Ferdman to mean that two thirds of the dairies in the United States are bad. This is not true.

I have and will always be an advocate for animal wellbeing. However, I do believe we need to be concerned about pushing biology too far without the proper support for extremes in production. After learning that high producing cows, such as Gigi, have good longevity, I will stop making statements that relate production to longevity. Recent information from semen distributors has also shown that concentrated selection for size and production has been replaced by selection for health and longevity. It is great to have genetic options to improve traits and wellbeing. In addition, I just learned that recently published and soon-to-be published scientific studies show great improvement in lameness issues previously associated with high producing cows.

There are always areas where improvement is needed. Too many cows that should be euthanized on the farm are still arriving at packing plants. Another problem I have observed is very tall cows and some tall dairy steers are bruising their backs in transit. Truck size is limited to 13 feet 6 inches due to bridge clearance. If cattle are too tall, they may require single deck trailers.

In conclusion, I will be clearer when talking to the public. The majority of the dairy industry is doing a great job with animal well-being through improved facilities, workforce management, feeding and selection, but there are still a few who really hurt all of animal agriculture when poor decisions are made. While I praise the majority, we all need to work together to improve the others.

Meet a FARM Evaluator: Fabian Bernal, Dairy Farmers of America, Inc.

In his role working with dairy producers for the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program, Fabian Bernal can confidently say that animal care and farming practices are better than ever before.

“We have learned a lot from farmers and their cows, and we’re improving the care that cows receive as a result.”

Bernal’s love of animals started at an early age, having grown up on a small dairy farm in his native Colombia. He later moved to the U.S., where he attended Western Kentucky University and he completed his master’s majored in animal science. There, he was mentored by well-known agriculture consultant and veterinarian Dr. Jenks Britt and decided to focus on dairy. Bernal has worked for Dairy Farmers of America, Inc., for five years leading industry initiatives related to animal health.

As a FARM Program evaluator, Bernal is responsible for making sure farmers’ management practices adhere to the key elements of the FARM Program. The evaluator’s role is to visit farms to collect data, make assessments of on-farm practices and have meaningful conversations with farm owners about continuous improvement.

“The FARM Program is about looking at the industry in an objective way that allows farmers to obtain meaningful feedback,” he said. “It’s also an opportunity to share with consumers the great story we have to tell about the dairy industry. And now we have the data to back it up.”

That data can range from basic information about the farm to animal measurements like body condition injuries or locomotion scores. Bernal then makes sure to analyze and discuss this data with the farmer, so they are always aware of such vital details.

But that’s far from Step 1 in the FARM evaluation process. First, Bernal encourages farmers to complete a pre-evaluation self-assessment form, which acts as a checklist of things the farmer should take care of before the evaluator arrives. When he gets on the farm, he does a preliminary interview with the farmer, learning the basic rundown of the operation. Then, the evaluation begins. For a period of 3-8 hours, Bernal checks on the animals and collects his data – marking down anything out of the ordinary. At the end, he’ll have an exit interview in which discusses his findings with the farmer.

“Documentation often could be better,” Bernal says about a common issue he discovers during his FARM Program evaluations. “We find that it frequently gets placed on the back burner. We’re telling people to make sure there’s evidence to document their practices.”

What Bernal enjoys most about his job as an evaluator is how the process initiates meaningful conversations, because those conversations can lead to real change. During one evaluation, he met a foreign employee who was a successful veterinarian in her home country and had her own ideas on how to improve care for the operations’ calves. Later on, Bernal discovered the farm – in consultation with the farm’s vet – had enacted a special training program for calf care with the help of this employee.

And he’s learned much more: “Every farmer has a different management style, goals and ideas. This job allows you to have a better conversation with the farmer about those goals – and how you as the evaluator can be a part of them.”

3 Open Minutes with Emily Meredith of FARM

This article originally appeared in the April 19, 2016, issue of Progressive Dairyman. It was written by Walt Cooley.

During the past several months, Progressive Dairyman readers have responded to an announcement last fall that tail docking will not be permitted as part of Farmers Assuring Responsible Management, or the FARM Program, beginning next year.

Editor Walt Cooley summarized a few of their oft-repeated comments and questions about the accelerated timeline for ending the practice. He posed them to NMPF’s Vice President of Animal Care Emily Meredith. NMPF operates the national FARM program that guides animal care standards for 94 percent of the U.S. milk supply. What follows are Meredith’s responses.

Q. ‘If tail docking is not a hill to die on, what are the hills to die on in the FARM Program?’

A. MEREDITH: I think the first thing that comes to mind is antibiotic use. We have a lot of customers and people asking about dairy farms’ use of antibiotics – when they use them, how much they use them and are they mindful of withdrawal times.

Their questions are obviously something we work very hard to answer. The FARM program as it exists now helps to do that.

The number one tenet of the FARM program is the veterinary-client-patient relationship. That relationship is infinitely helpful when we go to a large customer, such as Walmart for example, and can say, “Our data shows that 99.999 percent of dairies that have been evaluated in the FARM program have a signed veterinary-client-patient relationship that is updated annually.”

Customers are looking for that veterinary oversight. They are looking for that collaboration to give them a great deal of confidence in the milk and dairy products they are buying. By making the VCPR a requirement, we can provide a measurable answer to this question with great confidence.

Q. What other animal care issues are coming to the forefront of customers’ minds?

A. MEREDITH: I’d say the other big one coming down the pike is a conversation around procedures we do in the dairy industry that research has shown are inherently painful.

Customers are asking how we address pain management. A lot of folks caution us that cows are not human beings. I completely agree with that, but there is also a lot of scientific research that’s been done by leading animal health experts, both in this country and others, that show there are some procedures that do cause some pain. We have decisions to make about how we answer those questions.

Dehorning is a perfect example. It is a procedure we can defend because it is very necessary, not only for the safety of the animals but also for the humans working around them. However, we need to be talking about how we are doing that procedure and when we are doing it.

The research shows earlier is better, which is why in the FARM program it recommends doing it before 6 weeks old. We are looking at how producers could work with their veterinarians to determine if there is something they could give a calf to lessen the pain of that procedure.

Antibiotic use and dehorning – those to me are our critical “hills to die on” because I can’t think of a dairy farm that doesn’t dehorn and I can’t think of a dairy farm that doesn’t use antibiotics – except, of course, organic dairies.

Those two are the type of things we need to put our energy and weight behind and figure out how we talk to people about why those practices are necessary and defend them, if necessary.

Q. ‘After watching the tail-docking issue unfold, it feels like we are giving up when it comes to accepting customers’ animal care requests.’ Does ‘folding’ on tail docking set a precedent that the industry will give up on other issues?

A. MEREDITH: I would strongly disagree with that statement. I don’t think we are giving up. To begin with, the end of routine tail docking next year is not a change in policy.

It’s been written that way in the FARM program since its creation in 2009 that we don’t recommend the practice. We are moving up the deadline for the end of the use of the practice, yes, because of concerns that have been raised.

A lot of customers were already setting their own deadline on that issue, which was a challenge to having one national animal care program such as the FARM program. We didn’t want to see that happen.

The reality is – and it is a challenging one for us here at NMPF as well as for those who administer the FARM program – we live in a world where consumers are very interested in the story behind their food, and customers want to be able to tell their own story about social responsibility and sustainability in animal care.

Those are things they are now suddenly interested in. And that means we need to be more proactive. I don’t see being proactive as giving up. I see it as preserving the best possible market for milk and dairy products by picking battles.

Keeping all of our customers on the same page so we don’t have 30 different standards for animal care but just one is a challenge. It’s something our staff works very hard to do. Making sure that we are answering questions and moving everyone in the same direction; that to me is not giving up. Sometimes that’s going to mean that, yes, we need to evaluate which practices we can defend. We just can’t defend tail docking anymore.

Q. ‘Tail docking should be a practice that remains an individual producer’s right to choose to use or not use.’ Who is it that’s making decisions about what producers can and cannot do?

A. MEREDITH: First and foremost, what I say to producers who call me about this issue is that it’s still your right to choose whether or not you want to tail dock. However, there are now ramifications for that decision.

You can choose to do what you find is best, but you just might then have a challenge finding a home for your product if your co-op or processor chooses not to accept your milk. This is the market talking to farmers; how farmers respond will determine their marketing options going forward.

In terms of who makes the rules, it’s our technical writing group, which is a group of producers, co-op staff, academics and veterinarians. We don’t have customers who sit on our advisory committees, although we certainly receive their input almost on a daily basis. We certainly share their feedback with our advisory group.

They meet every three years to determine what, if any, changes are needed to the FARM program. They look to see what the latest research is, what we are seeing in the field, what we are hearing from our producers, and then also what the program data shows.

Any recommended changes go through a review process by our NMPF Animal Health and Well-Being Committee, and then the changes are also sent out for public comment.

In the version of the FARM program that’s coming out in January 2017, the only practice we say needs to be phased out is tail docking. We’re not asking anything else to happen on any other animal care practice.

Q. ‘I don’t believe science has proven tail docking isn’t a beneficial practice.’ How much will science play a role in determining the validity of the use of a practice in the future?

A. MEREDITH: The FARM program is, first and foremost, a science-based program.

If we want to put our faith in a science-based program, we unfortunately can’t pick and choose which science we want to support. That means we need to stand behind science even when research shows that a practice that we’re currently doing might no longer be viable.

I think that’s exemplified in the tail-docking issue. The American Dairy Science Association and the Journal of Dairy Science just published all of the research on tail docking. (See Tail Docking Collection for a special collection of articles published between 2000 and 2010.) Not a single one of those studies says that tail docking is a viable or a recommended practice for the health and welfare of a dairy animal.

It’s important to point out that no tail docking takes place in California, the number-one dairy state, and our own data indicates that only about one-quarter of farms nationally continue to do it. So it’s hard to make the case that docking is essential to the industry.

Q. ‘The FARM program was voluntary at first, now it’s not voluntary because my co-op is mandating that I participate. It feels like this program doesn’t stop asking for things. Will the program ever stop asking for more?’

A. MEREDITH: l think the phrase that describes the FARM program best is that it’s a program of continuous improvement. And so, as needed, the FARM program standards are going to continue to evolve and change.

We’re not looking for perfection or for change overnight. We’re looking for change over time, progress over time. The FARM program is going to do our part to make sure that everyone downstream – our customers – understand that this program isn’t about a perfect score.

It isn’t even a score program, for that matter. It’s about continuous improvement, evolving practices and what we’re doing on dairies over time.

I think to a certain extent, we have to change how we look at these things. If you look at this program always in a negative light, then you are only going to feel negative about it.

But if you look at this program as something that helps to tell the story we already know is true, which is that dairy farmers take great care of their animals, then this program helps us provide the data to help back that story up to the people who are asking questions.

The reality is: Our customers are probably never going to stop asking questions. They are not going to stop asking about how things are done on the farm. We don’t live in a world anymore where we can just say, “Trust us. It’s under control.” I think where I would like to end up is where we provide them hard proof and all the information they need to feel confident in the dairy industry and how we treat our animals.

Q. ‘Whoever doesn’t allow tail docking hasn’t been smacked in the face with a manure-soaked tail before. Who is it that’s making up these standards?’

A. MEREDITH: I feel fairly confident saying that everyone on the FARM program’s technical writing group and NMPF’s Animal Health and Well-Being Committee have all milked cows. I am confident in saying they understand that it is unpleasant.

Our experts have recommended switch trimming as an alternative to tail docking to alleviate the issue you just mentioned. These are the folks who set the policy and, again, they have a wealth of experience both on-farm and in academic settings that make them very well equipped to set the course for the FARM Program going forward.