More than 200 people gathered this weekend at the Cal Poly dairy symposium in San Luis Obispo, Calif., to take a close look at animal welfare and the dairy industry.

To kick things off, Brian Fiscalini and Chris Durrer, both Cal Poly graduates and fourth-generation dairy farmers from Modesto, Calif., discussed how they manage their operations and what methods they use to ensure cow-comfort. Both Fiscalini and Durrer agreed being a dairy farmer is more than an occupation. “We wouldn’t do this unless we love it and love our animals,” asserted Durer.

It should also be noted that Fiscalini’s family dairy is also one of the first dairies in the United States to pass a third-party, animal-welfare audit.

Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), provided a counter point-of-view to that of the producers. Shapiro reminded the audience that HSUS has more than 11 million members and that one in 28 people is a HSUS supporter.

Shapiro said that the dairy industry, in his eyes, looks better than the pork, poultry or veal industry. “I tip my hat to the California dairy industry for not preventing the tail-docking bill from passing.” He did point out that downer cows are an example of where the dairy industry could have done better sooner. “Being proactive on animal-welfare is in the industry’s best interest. We welcome being on the same side.”

The discussion then moved on to animal-welfare legislation.

Prior to 2000 there was no action in the U.S. on animal-welfare, meaning there were zero laws related to animal-welfare on the books. Now seven states ban certain extreme confinement practices. Bernard Rollin, faculty member at Colorado State University and an expert on the animal rights movement, says that more than 2,100 bills related to animal-welfare have been introduced since 2004. Rollin believes that all of these issues can be resolved by discussion, understanding and compromise.

The failure to understand the nature of the concept is the biggest mistake the livestock industry has made regarding animal-welfare. “The concept of animal-welfare is ethical in nature, not science-based,” Rollin said.

Rollin was quick to point out that the majority of animal suffering doesn’t come from animal cruelty. He believes that 90 percent of diseases treated by veterinarians are caused by production system. Therefore, farmers need to focus on their systems and pay attention to what works and what does not.

With that in mind, here are the top areas of concern for animal-welfare on dairies, according to HSUS:

  • Hyperproductivity (Cows that produce high-volumes of milk due to ration formulation.)
  • Lameness
  • Mastitis
  • rBST
  • Dehorning without painkillers
  • Tie stalls, calf housing and flooring
  • Transport of ill and injured animals
  • Humane handling
  • Downer cows

To improve the dairy industry’s position on animal-welfare, Rollin suggests:

  1. Get rid of the Happy Cow Commercials and tell the truth. “Don’t hang your future on a lie,” he warned.
  2. Be in charge of your own future. “Don’t wait to be told by the government – which doesn’t know what it’s talking about,” he said.
  3. Look at the social ethical landscape; find the problems and fix them before it’s too late.
  4. Pay attention to the longevity of cows. It’s an iconic image that a cow lasts a long time.
  5. The industry needs more “cow-smart” people that focus on animal husbandry.
  6. Laws don’t mean anything. The industry needs to police itself.
  7. Examine the treatment of bull calves and fix areas of concern.
  8. Feed calves for weather conditions. “This is an animal-welfare issue. Calves need to have enough fat reservoirs to survive the cold,” he said.

See “Happy Cow commercials come under fire” for more from the Cal Poly dairy symposium.