There are over 60,000 dairy farms in the U.S. that house over 8 million dairy cows and an equal number of dairy heifers. Anybody who has worked with dairy cows knows that patience is key to success, and absolutely nothing is gained when an animal is mistreated. However, there can be bad eggs in any basket. Animal rights organizations, whose ultimate agenda is to end animal agriculture completely, have taken the abnormal and portrayed it as normal, claiming that all farm animals are mistreated. Obviously that is not the case – undercover animal rights activists spend months on several farms to collect seconds worth of video.
More often than not, the footage doesn't depict abuse at all, and instead shows breeders inseminating a cow in heat or workers picking up a cow who has fallen down. However, every once in a while an animal rights extremist is in a bad place at the right time and witnesses abuse. The footage is portrayed with darkened images and disturbing sound effects on national media and instantly all 60,000 dairy farms are found guilty without a trial.
Consumer education continues to improve the public's perception of animal agriculture. We may have arrived late to the party, but the social media presence of the agricultural community is unwavering. The Peterson Farm Brothers produce musical satires with an ‘agvocacy" twist, to the tune of 30 million YouTube video views. For comparison, the last three Mercy for Animals videos combined racked up just over 700,000 views.
The winds may be in the farmer's favor, but that's still 700,000 more negative impressions than would be ideal. Consumers will never fully trust in agriculture when an animal rights campaign pulls at their heartstrings on national television every few months. Even though the cases are few and far between, animal agriculture needs to implement a zero tolerance policy for animal cruelty.
The first animal cruelty laws were passed in 1641 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Today all 50 states have anti-cruelty statutes, but in the majority of states animal abuse is only a misdemeanor. If perpetrators were more severely punished for their actions, perhaps they would think twice before taking their temper out on a stubborn heifer. Social science research shows that children who witness or experience abuse are more likely to abuse animals in adulthood.
Males are four times more likely to report abusing animals compared with females. When parents recognize but ignore a child who mistreats animals, the child is more likely to abuse animals during adulthood. Empirical evidence supports that teenage boys engage in animal cruelty in the presence of their peers to enforce their masculinity.
In the context of a dairy farm, it's more important than ever for managers and owners to set an example of good animal handling. If an employee is seen mistreating an animal, even just one time, it's critical for the employee's superior to discuss the unacceptable behavior. But how do we prevent the owners or managers from mistreating animals? Perhaps the industry needs a "hotline" to report animal cruelty, or a designated staff member on every farm that can be alerted of the abuse in a confidential way.
A nationally representative survey published in 2009 estimated that 1.8% of adults in the U.S. have mistreated an animal at least once. It's not clear whether the same prevalence exists in the dairy sector workforce. However, until the prevalence of abuse is zero, anti-agricultural organizations will continue to make all farms responsible for the actions of a few people. Through social media, farm tours, and good communication, the dairy industry has done a fantastic job of educating the public about the benefits of progressive agriculture. Cow comfort research and animal welfare guidelines have drastically improved modern animal housing systems. However, all this may be for nothing if the actions of the industry's bad eggs are not corrected.
Despite the fact the most farms treat their animals with care and compassion, we need to work within the dairy industry to identify and prevent any incidence of animal abuse. The best way to do this is still unclear, but one thing is known for sure: when animal cruelty occurs on a farm, it is inexcusable, and it reflects poorly on all dairy farmers across the country.