As dairy producers, we all live and die by perception,” says California dairy producer John Fiscalini.

Perception counts, whether it involves a mother who believes she has to buy organic milk in order to get a product that’s free of antibiotics and pesticides or a family that drives by your operation and wonders if the cows are happy and well cared for. These perceptions -— valid or not — are important to the long-term success of your business and the dairy industry.

Since Fiscalini began making farmstead cheeses five years ago, he has learned a lot about consumers’ perceptions. And that, in part, is what led him to have an independent third-party animal-welfare assessment and audit done on his 1,500-cow dairy.

The knowledge gained, says Fiscalini, “was worth more than the few thousand dollars that it cost.”

Here’s why doing an animal-welfare assessment has paid off for several producers so far.

Evaluates your management     

All dairy owners know the importance of good animal husbandry. But as herds have grown in size, what the owner wants isn’t always what the employees do, explains Jim Reynolds, service chief of dairy production medicine at the Veterinary Medicine Teaching and ResearchCenter in Tulare, Calif.  And that can cause problems.

Think about it from an economic standpoint. If your cow-group size is 200, and each cow has a value of $2,000, that means the employee who moves cows from the free-stalls to the parlor and back again is responsible for a $400,000 investment. Rushing cows to and from the parlor is one of the biggest causes of slips and falls and downer cows on farm, says Reynolds. So, you need to train the personnel properly, explain the importance of not rushing the cows, and then make sure that they follow the protocols.

That’s where tools, such as an independent third-party audit, can help. 

“When you see the cows and the dairy every day, your viewpoint can get skewed,” says Fiscalini, who has completed the assessment and audit portions of the Animal Welfare Assurance Review and Evaluation (AWARE) program. Having an independent third-party assessment of the operation tells you how you are doing as a manager, he says. It also tells you:

  • If you are meeting industry standards in terms of
    animal care.
  • If employees follow your protocols when you are not around.
  • If your management protocols deliver the intended results.
  • If you have problems that may have gone unnoticed.

Having such a thorough review of every aspect of the operation and finding out “we were doing things right was a great pat on the back for our whole team,” Fiscalini adds.

Uncovers problems

For Arizona producer Paul Rovey, having an animal-welfare assessment uncovered the root cause of a higher-than-normal incidence of lameness in the 2,100-cow herd. “At the time, we were going through a really wet period where we received two years’ worth of rain in four months,” he explains. The corrals were a challenge, the cows’ feet were constantly wet, and the lameness rate went up. Given the conditions, an increase in lameness was not totally unexpected.

However, the assessor discovered that two cow groups in particular were affected. Loose pebbles on top of old concrete alleys in their pens were bruising the soles of their feet, leading to lameness. (These pens now receive extra passes with the rubber scraper to keep a buildup of pebbles from occurring.)

“We had attributed the problem to all of the rain, and didn’t look any deeper,” recalls Rovey. “The assessment taught us that you need to look deeper when a problem occurs” because multiple factors are usually involved. 

Lameness is a prime example of accepting something as normal, even though it is not normal, explains Dennis Armstrong, an ISO-9001-trained auditor for the AWARE program.

It’s a powerful lesson, he adds, when you can show a producer for example, that 6 percent of cows in a group have a lameness score of 3 or higher or that 15 percent of cows in the hospital pen have a body condition score of 2.0 or less. “You can really open up people’s eyes and minds to a problem they may not have seen before.”

Colorado organic dairy producer Juan Velez agrees. Even though the AWARE auditors all have dairy industry experience, they look at your operation from a different perspective.

Velez recalls the AWARE assessment last summer that revealed a potential problem at the 3,900-cow dairy he manages. It was hot, dry and somewhat dusty that day, and the assessor pointed out that dust can become a  problem from a neighbor-relations standpoint.

In addition, the assessor:

  • Suggested that the dairy close two of its four entrances to control traffic, limit access, and keep the dairy more biosecure.
  • Suggested that the dairy provide shade for the dry cows. “But he didn’t just say you need more shade,” says Velez. “He also shared the latest research on the topic and explained the value of shade to dry cows, and that really gave us the impetus to make the change.”

Later, on a cold and drizzly day in November, the dairy had its animal-welfare audit. The auditor noticed that a couple of cows slipped on the return lane as they left the parlor. Upon further investigation, Velez’ team found that the grooves in the concrete return lane were worn down. On dry days, slippage was not a problem, but on wet days the worn grooves no longer provided enough traction. (The problem has since been corrected.)

In the dairies assessed or audited so far, the problems found have been easily correctable items such as those listed above, says Armstrong. The problems seen most often have to do with paperwork. Common examples include:

  • Not having standard operating procedures written in Spanish when there are Spanish-speaking employees on the premises.
  • Not having an emergency action plan that employees can follow in the owner’s absence.
  • Not having a written protocol for euthanizing an animal.

Addresses adherence to protocols

Most producers started out doing the work of 10 people themselves. Now, as managers, they have to lead 10 to 20 people. That’s hard work, and it requires a change in their approach, says Armstrong.

That’s why written protocols and training have become so important to the success of today’s dairy businesses. It’s the only way to ensure that the cows are cared for the way the owner would do it himself. An animal-welfare assessment can tell you if employees carry out your protocols as specified and if the protocols deliver the intended results.

At one dairy, where Armstrong did the assessment, he found that the docked-tail length on the cows was correct, but that it was too short on the younger animals. The dairy had written protocols for the procedure that specified tails should be docked two hand-lengths below the vulva — the industry standard. However, the employee responsible for banding the tails did not know he was docking tails shorter than specified, nor did he know why the length of the tails was so important. No one had ever explained that to him, and no one had ever evaluated his work to tell him if he was leaving the tails too short. (This problem was addressed immediately.)

Improves transparency

Businesses that develop total transparency and welcome outside viewers have a greater chance of succeeding, says Reynolds, who is also an ISO-9001-trained auditor for the AWARE program. Consumers today are so far removed from the farm that it’s only natural they want to understand how their food is raised. 

For example, since Fiscalini started making farmstead cheeses, he has noticed there are always a few people who attend farmers’ markets or wine-and-cheese tastings who will ask if his dairy is organic.  When he answers “no, why do you ask?” the response is always about antibiotics and chemicals in milk, or even animal welfare. Since passing the AWARE audit, he now proudly displays his certificate of completion at such gatherings, and the customers who ask questions come away impressed.

An independent animal-welfare assessment and audit gives consumers confidence that the animals are humanely treated. Consumers place more trust in an independent review than if the business just says “yeah, we do that.”

As this program grows and more dairies get certified, “I see this as something the dairy industry can hold up as sort of a shield to detractors,” says Velez. It’s outside verification that dairy producers — even large ones — do take good care of their animals. It may even become necessary to keep customers. 

Fiscalini agrees. “I really believe there will come a day that if you can’t prove you are doing everything right in terms of animal care that you will get paid less for your milk. Or, perhaps not even have a market at all,” he says.

A few co-ops and processors are currently researching marketing opportunities to see if their customers want products from dairies that have passed an animal-welfare certification.

While the marketing aspect is important, producers who have done the assessments say that’s not the most important reason. The assessments and audits look at the basics of animal care and management. They help producers find weaknesses in management and make improvements, which, in turn, makes them a wise business investment.


What is AWARE?

The animal welfare assurance review and evaluation program was developed by Validus in Des Moines, Iowa. The program has two components: (1) an assessment, which is an educational tool designed to evaluate all aspects of an operation and identify any areas that may be in need of improvement, and (2) an audit which is pass/fail. In addition, the program:

  • Is voluntary for interested producers, or it can be requested by a co-op or processor for their producers.
  • Has been USDA-process-verified.
  • Involves auditors who have been ISO-9001 trained.

Validus is developing an animal-welfare certification seal that may be used by producers who have passed the audit portion of the program.

To learn more, visit www.ValidusServices.com, or call (515) 278-8002.


What happens in an assessment?

if you would like to learn more about what to expect from an AWARE assessment or audit please see “What do your cows say about their welfare?” in the August 2005 issue of Dairy Herd Management. You also can find it at www.dairyherd.com. Just type the title listed above into the search box on the left side of the front page and push “enter.”