How to respond to questions about animal welfare

Consumers today are hammered with negative messages about animal agriculture. And with less than 2 percent of the population involved in food-animal production, it"s actually good that consumers want to know more about how food animals are reared. After all, asking questions sure beats the alternative —accepting the activist groups" views as gospel. 

Dairy producers need to manage their farms with the goal of total transparency, says Jim Reynolds, service chief of dairy production medicine at the Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center in Tulare, Calif. When everything you do is based on industry-accepted best-management practices, or research, your animal-care systems are easily defendable. It"s when shortcuts occur that the industry runs into problems.

For example, using hutches to rear young calves is a proven management practice. And, when the hutch provides a clean, comfortable living space that protects calves from the elements and allows them to turn around, hutches can be defended to the public. "However, when producers cut corners and make smaller nursery hutches that don"t allow calves to turn around, that practice is no longer defendable," explains Reynolds.

Animal welfare is defined each and every day by the people who care for animals on your farm. And today"s consumers simply want to know that the food they eat is produced from well-cared-for animals. 

Listed below are questions that consumers might ask about animal welfare on your farm. Use these talking points, listed in answer form, to frame some responses — and also speak up for animal agriculture and educate consumers in the process. The talking points were prepared with the help of Reynolds; Frank Garry, veterinary teaching hospital at Colorado State University; Carolyn Stull, extension animal-welfare specialist at the University of California-Davis, and Sandy Goff, project manager with Validus, provider of voluntary animal-welfare assessments and audits for dairy producers.

Why are calves taken away from their mothers at birth?

This occurs for two reasons:

  • Calves are fed colostrum to boost their immunity levels. It is important that calves receive adequate amounts, and feeding them by hand helps ensure this. Research from the 1994 National Dairy Heifer Evaluation Project shows that calves left with their mothers to nurse often fail to get enough colostrum for adequate immunity against disease. In addition, calves are placed in clean, dry pens shortly after birth to support their health and growth.
  • A few days after cows give birth, they are returned to the milking herd to supply milk for consumers. 

Why are dairy animals dehorned?

When horns are not removed, the animals can harm themselves, or else cause injury to their herdmates and human caregivers. 

Dehorning should be done in the first few weeks of life — the earlier the better. When done before four weeks of age, it can be done with minimal discomfort to the animal. If calves are dehorned after four weeks of age, an anesthetic must be used and the calves watched closely for secondary illnesses that can occur. The industry is progressing toward a standard of dehorning prior to four weeks of age, with non-surgical procedures, but some producers still fall short of that goal.

Why do downer cows happen?

Even in well-managed operations, cows will sometimes be injured from a slip or fall. Or, after a difficult birth, calving paralysis can leave some cows unable to rise and walk without assistance.

Prompt attention by caretakers determines the animal"s prognosis for recovery. These animals must be separated from the herd and receive appropriate veterinary care. Animals that are in severe pain or have a poor prognosis for recovery are euthanized (given a humane death).            

Some dairies have made significant improvements in reducing the number of downer cows that occur. The use of special non-slip flooring surfaces and appropriate grooving methods on cow walkways, as well as training employees on how to properly move animals, pays dividends. However, many farms still have room for improvement.

Why are cows kept confined in pens?

In a perfect world, all livestock would be raised as naturally as possible. However, given the large number of people to feed in the U.S. and the world at large, modern livestock production has had to become more efficient in order to produce enough food at an affordable price.

Dairy cattle are very adaptable. As long as they are given a healthy environment, they will grow, reproduce and produce milk. Some cows are housed in free-stall barns that allow them to lie and rise naturally in their individual stalls. They are provided with comfortable beds of sand, or even specially-designed cow mattresses that are groomed daily. Ventilation systems deliver fresh air to the cows, and fans and sprinklers keep them cool in the summer.

Some dairies use dry-lots or corrals for cows. They use shade cloth, fans and sprinkler systems to help keep the cows cool. And, dirt lots are continually groomed to provide a clean, comfortable bed.

While these systems are not perfect, researchers and producers alike are always making improvements. In fact, much of what is done today, including the sprinklers, fans and comfortable bedding, was learned through research and on-farm experience.

Why do farmers not take better care of their animals?

Dairy producers — both large and small — strive to provide proper care of their animals. Dairies often employ a nutritionist to formulate specific diets for growing and lactating animals. Veterinarians provide health programs for cows and calves, including routine vaccinations to keep them healthy. In order to make sure that animals receive prompt attention when an illness or injury develops, caretakers assess animals every day.

Some producers have even requested an assessment or audit of their on-farm animal-welfare practices. (For more information, go to and use the search feature to call up the articles entitled, "What do your cows say about their welfare?" and "Expecting inspectors?")

Resources to learn more

use these resources to learn more about proper animal care.

You have room to improve

dairy producers generally take good care of their animals. but, over time, a few bad habits or chronic problems have developed. Lameness, death loss, and bull-calf care each have the potential to be a huge black eye to the industry and change consumers" perception of dairy.

"Just because PETA hasn"t noticed these problems yet doesn"t mean they"re not a problem," says Frank Garry, veterinarian at the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Some producers do achieve lameness rates of 5 percent or less; have herd mortality rates of 2 percent, and calf death loss rates of less than 1 percent. These levels are achievable — and you, too, can make improvements. 

Change in mind-set

In order to provide consistent and quality care for your animals, the first question you should always ask is "What"s the best way to care for an animal?" Then, the second question becomes "How can I do that cost-effectively?" 

Monetary cost shouldn"t be the first and foremost factor, says Carolyn Stull, extension animal-welfare specialist at the University of California-Davis. Instead, producers should weigh the long-term benefit of consumer confidence in dairy products with the cost to enhance animal welfare on their farms.

For example, every year Garry has at least one producer ask if it is all right to feed young calves milk just once a day. Yes, it would cost less, but the animals wouldn"t be as healthy or grow as fast. Generally speaking, proper animal care coincides with the most cost-effective strategy over the long run.

"Dairy producers have been fortunate in that they haven"t had the big issues that push consumers" buttons like pork and poultry producers have," says Stull. However, the industry does need to be more proactive. If the industry wants to ensure long-term consumer confidence, improvements must be made. 

Take a hard look at your operation. If you haven"t addressed each of the following areas, then it"s time to do so.  

1. Lameness.

Lameness causes pain. To minimize potential effects, you must set up protocols to identify and treat lame cows early, as well as identify and correct the causes of lameness. It"s possible to achieve a lameness rate of less than 5 percent.

2. Newborn calf care.

All calves — even bull calves — should receive 2 to 4 quarts of colostrum shortly after birth. Failure to do so dramatically increases their morbidity and mortality rates.

3. Non-ambulatory animals.

Many non-ambulatory animals are the result of slips and falls. However, you can prevent many of these by properly designing and maintaining floors and loading areas, and by training employees to allow cows to move at their own pace — especially in inclement weather. When an animal does go down, you must have a protocol to assess the best option for the animal, whether it is nursing care or euthanasia.

4. Death loss in cows.

How many cows die each year on your farm? If it is more than 2 percent to 3 percent, you really need to take a hard look at your operation to find out why.

5. Euthanasia.

Have you trained employees on how to humanely euthanize animals on your farm? Do you have a policy that clearly dictates when an animal should be euthanized? Gone are the days of stopping supportive therapy and simply letting an animal die.



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