Side profile of a referee showing the yellow card, isolated on a white background.
Side profile of a referee showing the yellow card, isolated on a white background.

A few years ago, Gary Conklin, owner of Conklin Dairy in Plain City, Ohio, received the shock of his life. An undercover video of alleged animal abuse shot at his family’s dairy was released to the media.

“We were devastated. I did not, nor did any family members, have any knowledge of what was going on,” Conklin said in a radio interview after a grand jury exonerated him of all wrong-doing.

It’s probably no accident that this video was taken in a state where animal-activists were trying to attain enough signatures to put an animal-welfare initiative on the ballot. But, how do you prevent something like this from happening on your farm?

One way is an animal-handling policy. Here is why you need to adopt one on your farm.

Have it in writing

It’s always better to have written rules and policies than informal policies, says Anthony Raimondo, agriculture labor law attorney with McCormick Barstow in Fresno, Calif.

An animal-handling policy is a very clear way to let your employees know what you expect from their interactions with your animals. It also spells out what will not be tolerated.

The policy does not have to be complicated. But the fact that you have one may prevent potential problems that could seriously impact the future of your dairy. You must act as though your operation is potentially under public scrutiny. And an animal-handling policy acts as a tool of protection.

An animal-handling policy provides proof that you have taken steps to provide animals with the best possible care, says Kay Johnson-Smith, chief-executive officer for the Animal Agriculture Alliance. The media is also less likely to attack a farm that has an animal-handling policy in place, since you can back up your statements regarding animal care with written rules.

Beef up animal-handling emphasis

The message that animal abuse will not be tolerated under any circumstance must be ingrained in all employees from their first day. That means you must take the time to explain to employees how you expect them to handle animals, says Johnson-Smith.

Review animal-handling policies and procedures at employee meetings. And, make sure employees have an avenue to communicate with managers and owners. If an employee does not have a good relationship with his immediate superior, this can interfere with the flow of information up the chain, says Roy Williams, a former business professional and calf-raiser who has returned to the research lab from Odessa, Texas. And that could be dangerous, given today’s political and legal climate.

Just one instance of an employee who knows about a problem, but is afraid to report it to either his immediate supervisor or to the owner, could result in the farm being the unwilling subject of front-page news and possible legal action.

Learn lessons from others

Employment practices at Conklin Dairy have since been changed to help prevent the situation from happening again. Conklin says that any future employees will be vetted extensively in a number of areas. “Our hiring process will be a lot more extensive than it was previously,”  he says.

Conklin Dairy has also adopted an official zero-tolerance-of-abuse policy. Any action that is inappropriate by any employee must be reported to management. “They are absolutely responsible to report that to us immediately so it can be dealt with,” he says. “All current employees have agreed to it, and all future employees will have to agree to it, too.”

Train and retrain

Sometimes your employees may be tired and aggravated by the cows under their care. The cows won’t move; maybe one kicked an employee, stood on his foot or engaged in some other annoying behavior. Employees need to understand that, while these are irritating circumstances, they can’t take their frustration out on the animals.

“Train them what to do when this happens,” says Anthony Raimondo, agriculture labor law attorney with McCormick Barstow in Fresno, Calif. “If an employee feels like he or she is going to lose their temper, teach them to walk away and collect themselves and that they’re not going to be disciplined for that.”

Periodically review your animal-handling policy to help develop an animal-welfare-first mentality. Reviews should be done more often if a problem arises. “If you have an animal with injury or catch someone on video mistreating an animal, it’s a powerful message to workers if the employee is fired and training follows,” explains Raimondo.

Make sure that your own actions follow the policies.

Re-Evaluate how you hire

An animal-handling policy is underscored by good hiring practices

As a general rule, many dairies do a terrible job of screening applicants in the dairy industry, and it’s time for that to change. “It’s rare that I see dairies question applicants about who their previous employers were or verify previous employment,” explains Anthony Raimondo, agriculture labor law attorney with McCormick Barstow in Fresno, Calif. At a very minimum, call and verify employment.

Don’t just hire the random guy who shows up at your dairy looking for work. “It never ceases to amaze me how casual dairies are about who they hire,” says Raimondo. “You are trusting the people you hire with your animals and your livelihood.”

This was a hard lesson learned by Conklin Dairy in Ohio, which became the focus of an undercover video a few years ago. Both the former employee (who ended up facing 12 counts of animal cruelty) and the videographer from an animal-rights organization claimed dairy work experience on their resumes. By outward appearances, each seemed qualified to work on the dairy.

The Animal Agriculture Alliance offers a list of questions to help dairy farms vet new employees. To obtain the list, contact the Animal Agriculture Alliance at: (703) 562-5160.

Animal-handling policy pointers

A standard animal-handling policy has been developed by Western United Dairymen with the help of Anthony Raimondo, agriculture labor law attorney with McCormick Barstow in Fresno, Calif., and is available for dairy producers. The policy is designed to ensure that all animals are treated humanely and that all employees who work with animals are appropriately trained to provide optimum care of animals.

The policy specifies that allegations of animal abuse must be reported promptly and will be investigated swiftly and resolved. Prompt disciplinary action will be taken against any employee or cooperator found to have abused animals, and such abuse will be grounds for dismissal. The dairy reserves the right to refer animal-abusers to law enforcement for prosecution.

If you adopt such a policy, it should state that if an employee sees any animal in pain, discomfort or being mistreated, it should be reported immediately.

Follow up on your rules to terminate an employee immediately if you suspect animal cruelty. “A written policy gives the dairy the ability to enforce standards without legal liability,” explains Raimondo. “A written animal-handling policy gives you something to stand behind.”

Make sure employees sign the policy. This acknowledges receipt and that they understand their responsibility. “If there is no signature, the first thing they’ll say is they didn’t get it,” notes Raimondo.

Make sure the animal-handling policy is translated into the language that employees speak. Rolling out a policy in English-only is no good. Legally, you can’t hold an employee to a policy unless it is in the language they understand, explains Raimondo.