Lately, there’s been a lot of talk up and down the food chain about animal welfare. Whether it’s consumers expressing concern about on-farm production practices, or chain restaurants and grocery stores developing animal-welfare programs to audit food-animal producers, or activist groups pushing their negative agendas, animal welfare seems to be top-of-mind. 

You respond, “I already invest in good animal care because I know that it yields healthy, productive animals. Why should I be concerned?”

Well, some members of the dairy-food chain won’t simply take your word for it. They want reassurance — for themselves and their customers. And this helps explain the advent of new animal-welfare assessment and audit programs. Not only do these programs help you evaluate your animal-care practices, they can help you find areas for improvement, says Dennis Armstrong, an ISO-9001-trained auditor for the Animal Welfare Assurance Review and Evaluation (AWARE) program.

Here’s what you can expect from an AWARE animal-welfare assessment:

 

An assessor will use the following tools when conducting and animal-welfare assessment on your dairy: tape measure, counter, stop watch, a body condition score card, locomotion score card and a hygine score card.

Step 1.  An assessment is an educational tool designed to evaluate all aspects of an operation and identify any areas that may need to be improved so that anyone looking at your operation from the outside would agree that you deliver top notch animal care. To request one, contact Validus, formerly EMS, LLC, at (515) 278-8002.

Step 2.  Validus will send you a background questionnaire with about 15 questions to complete and return. The questionnaire is designed to help determine how much time will be needed to conduct the assessment (or audit) and identify what forms will be needed by the assessor.

The questionnaire is also used to determine the cost of the assessment for each dairy. Validus calculates the cost of the assessment based on herd size and several management factors, such as if the heifers are raised on the farm or off-site and milking frequency. Total cost to you will include the cost of the assessment, plus travel expenses for the assessor.

Step 3.  Validus will assign a trained, certified assessor to do your assessment. Currently, four people have completed the training and been certified to do AWARE assessments for dairies. In addition, each has received additional training to become ISO-9001-trained for conducting audits. (ISO-9001 training is a specific international quality-management standard.)

Step 4. You will be contacted by the assessor to determine a mutually agreeable time to schedule the assessment visit. You or your herdsman will need to be present for the assessment. The approximate time to complete an assessment visit is as follows:

  • About a half day for a dairy with 600 cows or less.
  • One full day for a dairy with 700 to 1,200 cows.
  • About 1.5 days for 1,200 cows or more.
 

One of the best ways to evaluate lameness and locomotion-score cows is to view them as they return from the parlor, says Dennis Armstrong, trained assessor for the AWARE program. That’s because cows walk at their own pace on the return trip.

The exact time needed will vary based on your milking schedule. In herds that milk 2X, an assessor often needs extra time because the window of opportunity to observe groups of cows in the parlor is limited.

When setting up the visit, be sure to specify what biosecurity protocols you want the assessor to follow.

Step 5. When the assessor first arrives, you will need to give him a walking tour of the dairy. You will need to provide a map (hand-drawn is fine) that shows the layout and cow-flow on the farm. The map should identify each pen of animals, including high group, hospital pen and first-calf heifers. The assessor will use this map and your guidance to plan the timing of his visit to each group of cows and the parlor. Once the tour is complete, the assessor will ask to go to your office or someplace else on the farm where you can sit down to complete the verbal part of the assessment.

Step 6. Next, the assessor will sit down with you or your herdsman, or both if you prefer, to complete a detailed questionnaire. The assessor will read you each question and fill in your answers.

For many of the answers you provide, the assessor will need to see proof because the program is designed to provide independent third-party verification of your animal-care practices. For example, if you respond that your somatic cell count runs about 175,000 cells per milliliter, the assessor will need to see records, such as DHI reports, to verify this. Or, if you respond that you have written standard-operating procedures posted for employees, the assessor will need to see the posted protocols as well. 

The questionnaire covers all aspects of animal care and management on your dairy. You will be asked about everything from vaccination protocols to your emergency-action plan. Depending on herd size, and how long it takes you to provide verification on answers, this step will take about 1.5 to two hours.

 

This Jersey cow scored the following: a 2.25 body condition score and a 2.0 hygiene score.

Step 7. The assessor completes this next step alone. He will now visually inspect each pen of animals on the farm. In small herds, he will evaluate a minimum of 30 animals, or the entire pen if less than 30. In herds with 150 to 999 animals, 20 percent of the animals in each pen will be evaluated. In herds with more than 1,000 animals, 10 percent of the animals in each pen will be evaluated.

In addition to a few milking groups — at least one high, medium and late-lactation pen — he will visit the dry cows, hospital cows, close-up cows, first-calf heifers and the newborn-calf-care area. He will score animals on body condition, locomotion and hygiene.

Some of the things he checks include:

  • Stocking density, including square feet per animal as well as the number of headlocks and beds versus animals in a pen.
  • The amount of shade offered. (The goal is 40 square feet of shade per animal.)
  • The slope and maintenance of the pens.
  • With newborn calves, he will look at the condition of the navel, calf cleanliness and if the animals have a dry place to rest.
  • Where the calves are housed in comparison with the cows. (Calves should always be housed upwind of the cows in order to get fresh air.)
  • The overall condition of facilities, including flooring and the feed bunk. He also will check the size, cleanliness and grooming of stalls and calf hutches, the condition of ventilation and cooling equipment, and the possible evidence of rodents, flies and birds.
  • The availability of feed and water, as well as the quality of each.
  • In the parlor, he will look for cows that slip or fall upon entering and leaving. He also will evaluate the behavior of cows and employees in the parlor. Do cows stand still or constantly dance around while being milked? Are employees following the posted milking protocols, and what is the average turn time for the parlor?
  • How well do your employees interact with the animals? And how well do the animals respond to them? Any rough handling or carrying of sticks, whips or paddles is not allowed. 
  • If the animals have been tail-docked, he will examine the length of the remaining tail — it should be two hand-lengths below the vulva — and he will investigate to determine the age at which the docking took place.
 

This dairy does calf buckets right, says Dennis Armstrong. The water pail is clean and the amount of starter feed in the bucket is about what a young calf learning to eat starter will consume. All too often, you see wet, moldy unappetizing feed in the calf pails.

Although this list is not complete, it does give you an idea of the comprehensive nature of the assessment.

Step 8. Once the assessor has completed the review, he will give you a preliminary verbal report. During this exit interview, he will point out the things you do well, as well as any areas of concern. Concerns are categorized as “high exposure” and “general exposure.” Anything that can cause pain to animals or employees is viewed as “high exposure” or high risk, because it would be perceived very negatively by the general public or outsiders. On the other hand, things categorized as a “general exposure” do not involve pain for the animal, but could be perceived negatively by the general public. For example, having 5 percent or less of the healthy cows with body condition scores of 2.0 or less would be a general exposure.

 

An assessor will check both the quality and availability of water. One such test is to scoop up a handful of water and sniff it.

Feel free to ask questions. Ask the assessor for suggestions on how you can make improvements, or pinpoint the cause of a problem. 

After the assessor leaves, you will receive a detailed written report — generally within three weeks. Nothing in the report should come as a surprise since you and the assessor have already discussed the salient points in person. 

Step 9.  The AWARE program allows you to choose your level of participation. After an assessment has been completed, the next step, if you desire, is an audit and certification program. The audit, which is now USDA-verified, validates whether on-farm procedures are in compliance or not.  If they are, the producer will receive a certificate that verifies he uses humane animal-care procedures.

 

This tail is too short. Tails should be docked at least two hand- lengths below the vulva, and should not be done until the animal is confirmed bred.

Currently, 25 assessments in herds ranging from 90 cows to 5,500 cows have been completed. Some producers are doing an assessment to make sure they have everything in order should their processor one day ask for an audit, while others want to identify if there are areas where they can make improvements. And some, who are already making their own cheese or bottling their own milk, are taking the next step and completing the audit and certification process. For them, it is part of their direct marketing to consumers.

The choice is yours. If you want to do an audit, you can. If you want to do yearly assessments to keep tabs on your operation, you can. The program is strictly voluntary.

For more information

Currently, there are two national programs that provide animal-welfare assessments or audits of dairies. 

  • Animal Welfare Audit Program
    This audit program was developed by SES, Inc., at the request of the National Council of Chain Restaurants and the Food Marketing Institute.  Contact Eric Hess or Matt Lawrence at SES at  (913) 307-0056. Or, visit the Web site: www.awaudit.org
  • Animal Welfare Assurance Review and Evaluation program
    The AWARE program contains both assessment and audit components. Contact Validus, formerly EMS, LLC at (515) 278-8002. Or, you can send e-mail to: AWARE@Validusservices.com