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.”