Retail purchasing behavior is proof that dairy welfare programs are important.
Last year, Purdue University researchers asked 1,000 households about their perceptions and preferences for dairy products and the importance of dairy product attributes. “The attributes ranked the most important by participants were fat content and protein content, followed by ‘produced on farms with animal welfare and handling standards in place,’” says Melissa McKendree, a graduate student in the department of agricultural economics at Purdue.
On-farm dairy welfare evaluations and welfare audits do more than assure customers that your animals are treated humanely. Here’s a look at other benefits that producers have gained from these programs.
How did we overlook that?
Aurora Organic Farms, based out of Platteville, Colo., has been welfare-certified since 2006.
The reason Aurora went through an assessment and auditing program offered by Validus, a third-party auditor, was really quite simple.
“We wanted to verify that what we were currently doing for our cows was right for our cows and our animals,” says Emily Prisco, director of farm resources.
The assessment didn’t reveal any major animal welfare issues, she says, but it did draw attention to some basic things that are easy to overlook during the day-to-day running of a dairy.
One of the areas scored during the initial assessment was the cleanliness of the cows’ water supply. A score of 1 is equivalent to saying you or I would drink out of the trough. A score of 2 means there is room for improvement, and a score of 3 is a red flag — nobody would drink out of that trough.
Aurora originally scored a 2 in water supply cleanliness. It taught them to look closely at the little things and gave them a renewed commitment to monitoring for opportunities in easy-to-overlook areas.
Something like this isn’t that difficult to correct, and the end result is a reflection of your commitment to animal care.
“We went from having 2’s to having 1’s,” Prisco says. “It’s just a really good process to go through to verify you really are doing what’s right for the animals.”
Put those SOPs in writing
About a year ago, Jim Reid of Jeddo, Mich., went through the National Dairy FARM Animal Care ProgramTM. FARM is a voluntary program managed by the National Milk Producers Federation.
Member representatives from Reid’s cooperative, Michigan Milk Producers Association, came out to the farm to do the evaluation. During the evaluation, they went over a checklist with Reid. It opened his eyes to the importance of keeping written standard operating procedures — a practice often talked about, but not always implemented.
“Now I realize I need to create a binder on any procedure that we do throughout the farm,” he says. “We want to make sure it’s done the same every time, regardless of who is doing it at the time.”
Eric Hillan of Ladysmith, Wis., also went through the FARM program. His take-away from the experience concurs with Reid’s.
“We have a lot of information at our fingertips, but it’s not always organized like it should be,” Hillan says. “(It) made us more aware of organizing information so that non-owners can access that information in an emergency.”
It’s useful not only in an emergency, but also when training new employees, Hillan says.
The evaluation process also made Hillan rethink how they do certain things on the farm, like animal handling and using the concepts of point of balance and flight zone to move animals.
“If you’ve done things a certain way, there might be a better way to do it,” he says.
Get more out of your consultants
Karen Jordan, a veterinarian in central North Carolina, has gone through training to be an evaluator for the FARM program. Even though she helped develop the FARM documents, the training gave her an even deeper understanding of the program and she hopes that will benefit her clients.
“To me, we’re kind of doing those evaluations every time we’re on the farm,” Jordan says.
Being able to use the results of an informal or formal evaluation to help clients make management decisions and develop protocols is a big reason why she did the training… “just so I could be another asset, or another tool for my clients,” Jordan says.
AUDIT OR ASSESSMENT?
There are two types of dairy welfare programs — on-farm welfare assessments and on-farm welfare audits. They are similar, yet different.
An assessment or evaluation can be done by anyone, certified or not, explains Jim Reynolds, veterinarian and professor of bovine medicine and animal welfare at Western University College of Veterinary Medicine in Pomona, Calif. Results of an evaluation provide an opportunity for education and discussion about the welfare of animals on your farm.
“Welfare assessments are very powerful tools for farmers and veterinarians to determine what is going well on farm and what could be improved,” Reynolds says.
An audit, on the other hand, determines whether a farm is meeting specific animal welfare standards or not. It is not an educational tool, per se, but rather a way to determine if management is meeting animal welfare targets or goals. Operations that pass an audit become certified.
Here is an alphabetical list of some dairy welfare programs that exist in the United States: