Cattle feeder’s essay on an “Odyssey”

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Cattle farmer, cattle producer, feedyard manager and president of Will Feed, Inc., Anne Burkholder of Cozad, Neb., penned a thoughtful essay after reading “An Odyssey with Animals” by Adrian Morrison. 

Burkholder, who is also the producer chairman of the Technical Advisory Committee for Beef Quality Assurance in Nebraska, says, “I found many of Morrison’s observations and comments applicable to animal agriculture, and I shared my thoughts relative to the beef industry. It is my hope that this essay will help folks in animal agriculture to think about the true issue at hand so that we can all have the savvy that we will need in order be successful. I do not pretend to have all of the correct answers, my essay is simply sharing my thoughts in order to motivate a continued thought process regarding animal well-being in our industry.”

A cattle farmer’s thoughts on An Odyssey with Animals
By Anne Burkholder

Dr. Adrian Morrison explores the animal rights vs. animal welfare (well-being) debate that is currently permeating mainstream America in his book, An Odyssey with Animals. Although Dr. Morrison’s book primarily focuses on the use of animals for biomedical research, and the rights vs. welfare issues that arise in that field; he makes some very powerful statements regarding the continual development of quality animal well-being practices. For those concerned with the animal rights issue, Dr. Morrison goes through a very thorough scientific look at why the domestication of animals and the use of animals is consistent with nature and morality. For those who choose to focus their efforts on improving animal well-being, Dr. Morrison shares his insightful “hindsight” looking back on his career using animals for biomedical research. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on his suggestions regarding animal welfare (well-being).

I firmly believe that it is the cattle farmer’s responsibility to ensure that the focus of scientific research and “on farm” animal care practices continue to proactively improve animal well-being. It is also the cattle farmer’s responsibility to take the message of “I care for my animals, and I am competent in providing that care” to the American consumer. In order to accomplish those things, it is imperative that the cattle farmer remains diligent in his focus on animal well-being and does not get solely caught up in the debate of animal rights. While the animal rights debate is one of philosophy, the animal well-being issue is one based on scientific research and practical implementation of best management practices (BMP’s) “on farm”.

While I do believe that it is important to recognize the strategies and efforts of animal rights groups in order to protect our businesses, I believe that it is more important to maintain a proactive and diligent focus on improved animal well-being. Reading Dr. Morrison’s book allowed me to decipher the difference between animal rights and animal well-being, and to begin to formulate how cattlemen must focus in order to move forward successfully on the issue.

There is not much that will scare a cattle farmer more than the thought of increased regulation. I hope that cattlemen will individually place the needed importance on animal well-being without requiring regulation; however, I felt that Dr. Morrison’s statement regarding regulation was thought-provoking. He states, “For the most part, the resistance to change in the early 1980’s, mine included, was not because scientists were not concerned about the welfare of laboratory animals. Rather, we were resistant to the possibility of a burgeoning bureaucracy. To a certain extent that did occur, but overall, the changed environment in which we do our experiments today is for the better.”

Fortunately for the field of biomedical research, “sound science” was used to create the increased regulations which I believe was instrumental in the success that Dr. Morrison notes. Given the current political swing away from science and more centered on “emotion”, I have personal worries that current increased regulation of our industry will lack the scientific basis to enable it to be proactive and effective.

Therefore, I challenge the 800,000 cattle farmers in the United States to become involved with industry driven animal well-being education/certification programs such as the Beef Quality Assurance program so that we can accomplish better well-being for our animals without increasing government regulation. I believe that this is particularly important for the feeding segment of the industry—both from an animal efficiency/health standpoint and from a consumer trust standpoint.

I view the newly created North American Food Animal Well-being Commission (NAFAWC) committee a proactive step to:
1. Refocus attention on scientifically supported BMP’s for animal well-being and
2. Aid grassroots cattlemen’s organizations to insure that good BMP’s are implemented on the farm.

The final stage is programs such as the new BQA Feedyard Assessment which will objectively measure and certify the cattle farmer’s competence in providing animal care, and provide a means to communicate that assurance back to the consumer.

Dr. Morrison continues with an equally powerful statement regarding the “fight” that tends to develop between those who believe in the use of animals and those who do not (animal rights groups). He states, “Also, in the heat of the battle against those who were seriously misleading the public about the value and necessity of the use of animals in research, it was sometimes difficult to discern between those who wanted only better treatment of animals and those who wanted to block our work entirely. I freely admit that I made a number of mistakes in this regard. So focused was I on the unconscionable attacks on various researchers and the validity of biomedical research in general that I sometimes turned away the true welfarists.”

Are we in the beef industry guilty of this? Do we get so caught up in the battle that we lose sight of what the goal should be? As a cattle farmer, my mission is to use BQA holistic herd health and animal well-being BMP’s in order to provide quality care to my cattle. This, in turn, enables my cattle to efficiently produce safe, healthy, and delicious beef to feed my family and families all over the world. My mission has nothing to do with animal “rights” and it has everything to do with animal well-being. As such, my focus must remain on the commitment to quality animal well-being.

Morrison reports that, in an attempt to improve animal well-being in biomedical research, a couple of British scientists developed the concept of “the rule of the 3 R’s” for the use of animals in medical research. Later, this increased to “4 R’s”, which are:
- Reduction (#’s of animals used)
- Refinement (of techniques to eliminate or reduce pain)
- Replacement (with alternative approaches when available)
- Responsibility (of the laboratory scientist) to provide good care.

While not all of these are applicable to a cattle farmer’s use of animals for food production, I believe that they are worth considering.

I revised them in an attempt to make them relative to my cattle operation. They are:
- Responsibility (to provide basic care)
- Refinement (of techniques to improve care and reduce pain and stress)
- Research (continue to study the animals that we raise in order to best understand their needs and how to care for them without jeopardizing food safety)
- Realization (of scientific advancements “on farm”).

While someone smarter than I am can come up with a better way to say it, the idea is to have simple, universal ideals/standards by which to operate our cattle farms.

Advancements of animal well-being will evolve as the industry continues to learn. As Morrison states, “Most of us realize that animals are important to us, have contributed much to our lives in several spheres, and thus deserve thoughtful attention to their welfare. It is their due, and the principle of fair play demands it. The present awareness of our duties toward those under our control—and this more or less extends to every animal on the planet—requires centuries to mature. The process continues… We can do still better in many instances, and we will, with the aid of science and good will.” It is the cattle farmer’s responsibility to continue this study—it will improve the efficiency of our businesses while also ensuring that we exercise the “moral conscience” that, according to Charles Darwin, sets humans apart from animals.

While this short study of Dr. Morrison’s book does not even come close to giving full credit to the great ideas that he shared, it does pull out what I felt were the most important “lessons” for those of us involved in animal agriculture (specifically the beef industry) to ponder.

It is true that with every day that passes the average American gets further and further away from a rural agricultural life, but that separation does not have to ensure that mistrust exists between those that produce food and those that consume it. A universal focus on science based best management practices “on farm” which work to create consistent and competent high quality animal care will ensure that animal wellbeing continues to improve. With the documentation of these practices and the ability for farmers to communicate that “I care” to the consumer, that gap can be filled with the positive flow of information rather than the negative falsifications that currently plague media reports.

We must focus both internally to analyze and improve the care that is currently offered to our animals, and externally to share our story with the consumer. Either way that you look at it, the focus must be on animal wellbeing—not animal rights.

Quality animal care is both the right thing to do and the economical thing to do. The future of the thousands of cattle farmers in America depends on our ability to continually set our animals and the beef that they produce up for success.

Bovine Veterinarian's sister publication, Drovers, featured Burkholder in an "I'm a Drover" column. Read it here.


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