Editor's note: The following article appeared in the July 2014 issue of Dairy Herd Management.

In years past, the process of getting food from “farm to fork” drew little attention. Farmers and ranchers simply went about their work, but were not a highly visible part of the value chain.

Today, consumers – and hence retailers and processors – now have expectations about transparency that didn’t exist a few years ago. Both the traditional and social media are shedding much more light on food production practices. And in the livestock sector, much of this focus is directed at how farm animals are raised.

The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) recognized the need to deal with these new expectations, and in 2009 launched the National Dairy FARM Program: Farmers Assuring Responsible ManagementTM (FARM Program) in partnership with Dairy Management Inc.

Animal welfare transparencyThe FARM program is a national, verifiable animal care program. Since its launch, it has been implemented by cooperative and proprietary processors handling 75% of the milk supply. Producers can participate independently, or through their cooperative or processor, and there is no participation fee.

Many benefits for farmers

The program was designed to bolster public trust in the dairy industry and to demonstrate the industry’s commitment to the highest levels of animal care. But it also benefits farmers in the following ways:

• Because it was developed by farmers and animal care experts, and is overseen by those familiar with the dairy business, it is a practical, science-based program that works toward continuous improvement of on-farm practices and addresses consumer concerns. Rather than punish or exclude farms, it encourages adoption of best practices with the understanding that all businesses can continually improve.

• By creating a national animal care standard acceptable to all retail and foodservice companies, farms won’t have to cope with multiple standards, each created for a separate customer but similar in expectations.

The key to the FARM Program is the philosophy of continuous improvement. The program operates on a three-year cycle, focusing on a rotation of education, on-farm evaluation and third-party verification. As our understanding of animal care evolves, so too do the guidelines underpinning the program.

Animal welfare transparencyParticipating farmers are given training materials and are involved in an on-farm evaluation by a veterinarian or another trained, certified professional. Evaluators provide a status report and, if necessary, recommend areas for improvement. Farms must be reviewed by evaluators at least once every three years as part of the cycle.

Annually, a nationwide sample of participants is randomly selected for visits from third-party verifiers, a process assuring  the observations recorded during the second-party evaluations are valid. Validus Certification Services, an Iowa-based certified auditing company, conducts the verifications.

Every third year, the entire FARM Program is reviewed by a technical working group made up of producers, veterinarians and animal care experts. The program was revised in 2013. The next revision will take place in 2016. This allows for continuous program improvement, and ensures the most up-to-date practices are included.

The FARM Program is now in its second cycle, or FARM 2.0. Results to date demonstrate dairy farmers and the dairy industry aren’t just talking about animal care, but are performing dozens of practices each day that promote animal well-being and produce high-quality milk.


Learning from ourselves

A recent report found 94% of farms in the program train their employees to properly move non-ambulatory animals, and 98% train employees to handle calves with a minimum of stress. In addition, 99% of farms observe animals daily to identify health issues for early treatment; 92% train workers to recognize the need for animals to be euthanized; and 93% have protocols for dealing with common diseases, calving, and animals with special needs.

At the same time, there is room for improvement. The same report found that less than 85% of farms have a valid veterinarian-client relationship, and just 67% apply antiseptic to the navels of calves after birth. These findings help inform where additional focus and attention is needed to raise the bar on best management practice adoption.

As the FARM Program moves into its fourth year, NMPF continues to reach out to processors, retailers and food service companies to increase understanding of the industry’s animal care efforts. The program’s standards have been updated to reflect findings from 11,000 evaluations completed in the previous three years.

In addition, NMPF has updated the program’s website and its FARM Animal Care Reference Manual, which contains the guidelines that are the program’s core.

The updated manual includes input from a variety of stakeholders, and findings from the third-party verification process. The checklist used to evaluate farms has been streamlined, and changes were also made in the areas of medical procedures, animal observations and housing. The manual is available online at www.nationaldairyfarm.com, along with a Quick Reference Users Guide and animal care videos. All are presented in Spanish as well as English.

Last fall, the FARM Program also updated its safe use manual for antibiotics and other animal drugs, the Milk and Dairy Beef Drug Residue Prevention manual. This manual allows farmers to quickly review antibiotics approved for use with dairy animals, and educates farm managers in how to avoid drug residues in milk and meat.

New in the manual is a section on multiple drug screening tests and an updated drug and test kit list. The manual includes a certificate that can be signed by both a producer and veterinarian to demonstrate commitment to proper antibiotic use.

For better or worse, society today expects and demands more information on how food is produced. Consumers care about how farm animals are raised, and they have expectations of us to clearly demonstrate, measure and communicate the care provided to farm animals.

“Trust us, we’ve got it covered” is no longer acceptable when the public asks about cow care. But the good news is the National Dairy FARM Program demonstrates that we do have it covered. FARM fulfills the need for a uniform national, verifiable dairy animal care program without punishing farmers or subjecting them to multiple private, individual programs. It’s a major step forward.

Read more:

See It? Stop It! - Another major development in animal care came last year when NMPF, along with the Center for Food Integrity and the U.S. pork industry, launched “See It? Stop It! Animal Care Starts with You.”

From our board room: Animal welfare efforts described - This month, Dairy Herd Management asked Editorial Advisory Board members to describe their animal welfare philosophies, training and auditing programs.

Jim Mulhern is President and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, based in Arlington, Virginia. NMPF’s cooperatives members produce the majority of the U.S. milk supply, making NMPF the voice of more than 32,000 dairy producers on Capitol Hill and with government agencies.