During the last three years, I have worked with McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's on auditing meatpacking plants for animal welfare. These audits have resulted in great improvements. Each plant is audited, using an objective scoring system that I developed for the American Meat Institute.
People can manage the things they measure. And, when performance can be tracked, improvements can be made. The auditing system uses Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), a science-based system for producing safe food.
To keep auditing simple, relatively few critical control points are measured. The critical control points chosen are the ones that will measure more than one problem. For example, one of the critical control points in packing plants involves the percentage of cattle that slip or fall during handling. If a high percentage of animals slip or fall, possible reasons may include rough handling or slick floors. Objective numerical scoring of slipping and falling is easy. Each animal is scored on a "yes/no" basis. A fall is scored if the body touches the ground, and a slip is scored if slipping obviously interferes with walking.
Research by Paul Hemsorth in Australia has shown that milk production goes down when cows are subjected to negative behavior on the part of humans, such as yelling or hitting. Hitting and yelling is the critical control point that can be measured to assess animal handling. Numerical measurement helps keep standards high and prevents bad practices from becoming normal.
Currently, the fast-food restaurant chains are not auditing dairies, but it is likely that they will in the future. On-farm audits are now being done on both egg laying and broiler chicken farms. Dairy managers need to start developing their own welfare audits.
Five critical control points
In my opinion, the five major critical control points for animal welfare on dairies are:
3. Body condition score.
4. Care of non-ambulatory or downer animals.
5. Newborn calf care.
Handling we have already discussed.
Lameness is a major critical control point because cow welfare is severely compromised when animals are lame. Lameness can be caused by a variety of interacting factors, such as poor hoof care, over-use of concentrate feeds, mucky conditions, and rough abrasive concrete. That's why you evaluate lameness, because it can indicate more than one problem.
Both lameness and poor body condition are easy to measure. As cows exit the parlor, they can be scored and a dairy can determine if the scores are improving or getting worse. Monthly measurement is recommended.
The best way to deal with downer animals is to prevent their occurrence in the first place. It is likely that 85 percent to 90 percent of the downers can be prevented with good management. The best way to reduce downers is to keep records and use them to determine the cause. Then, take corrective action.
Newborn bull calves tend to be treated most poorly in areas of the country where they have little economic value. It doesn't have to be that way. Dairy managers can find feedlot markets in other states. Feedlots will buy those calves if they are backgrounded and grown, thus providing an economic incentive for better care.
Animal welfare is an issue that is not going to go away. The public is becoming more and more concerned about how animals are treated.
Their decision to buy a product, or to eat at a particular restaurant based on the restaurant's animal welfare policy, will directly affect your pocketbook. In fact, in the future, failure to comply could lead to a loss of customers and market share. Don't let it come to that. Use these five areas - handling, lameness, body condition, newborn calf care and downer animals - as your critical control points to help improve animal welfare on your dairy.
Temple Grandin is an associate professor of livestock handling and behavior at Colorado State University and owner of Grandin Livestock Systems.