FORT ATKINSON, Wis. — With the increasing amount of discussion about the care of animals on dairy farms, it is important that dairymen focus on management practices that resonate with societal values, said Nina Von Keyserlingk, animal welfare professor at the University of British Columbia.
“Because if you don’t do that, you’re messing with public trust which will mess with the social license that’s been given to you,” she said.
“Farmers have been given social license to practice by society because society doesn’t really understand the profession to regulate it,” said Von Keyserlingk during a webinar hosted by Hoard’s Dairyman. “Also, the public trusts farmers to self regulate themselves in ways that follow societal values as if society did understand the sector.”
However, Von Keyserlingk said, if the food production sector fails to self regulate properly, society will intervene to regulate the industry despite acknowledging they don’t understand the industry.
“I don’t think anybody in agriculture wants to get where somebody outside of our sector is regulating the sector that doesn’t have any clue about that sector,” she said.
One way to deal with criticism is to prevent consumers from seeing how livestock producers care for their animals. Through an online survey, one of Von Keyserlingk’s students researched this by asking participants if they believed farm animals in the United States have a reasonably good life.
The participants were divided into two groups. One group was told about ag-gag laws and the second group received information about feedstuffs that are fed to animals and then both groups were again asked the question about farm animals having a good life.
“People told about ag-gag laws were very reluctant to say farmers are trustworthy sources of information,” Von Keyserlingk said. “I don’t think closing the barn doors is the way to go because I think it messes with public trust.”
For another research project, people who had never been on a dairy farm were asked five simple questions.
“The first question was if a dairy cow needs to have a calf to produce milk and 58% of the people got it right,” Von Keyserlingk said. “The second question asked if dairy cows in British Columbia are routinely tied in their stall barn. British Columbia has about 470 farms and there are only six tie stalls left.”
Additional questions were if dairy cows in British Columbia are allowed access to pasture, how many days after birth does a dairy calf typically stay with its mom and if cows are fed milk, grass or a premixed feed.
“On average they got three out of five questions right,” Von Keyserlingk said. “Then the people were asked how confident they were that dairy cattle have a good life and 42% were confident and 28% were not confident.”
The survey participants went on a self-guided tour of a dairy that included eight stations where they learned about calf management, Canadian guidelines for on-farm animal care, cow health, feeding, reproduction and general behavior.
“The same questions were asked again and this time they got four out of five questions right, so for some people the tour really helped, but some perceptions worsened,” Von Keyserlingk said. “The 42% that was confident dairy cattle have a good life dropped to 28%.”
However, Von Keyserlingk said, the biggest change was the huge neutral group.
“To me this is a risky thing, so I don’t think just education is going to work,” Von Keyserlingk said.
“People were very pleased to see the high level of care and attention,” she said. “They talked about how caring the farmers were, but they were displeased about cow-calf separation and the lack of pasture and outdoor access.”
Cow-calf separation is one of the hottest discussion points in Australia and Europe, Von Keyserlingk said.
To evaluate this topic further, a research project was completed with 1,500 Americans. First the people were told that cows must have a calf to produce milk.
Then they told them that the calf was separated from the cow and individually housed, calves were socially housed or calves were reared with a foster cow system. The fourth group consisted of cows and calves remaining together.
“We asked people their perceptions in terms of welfare of the cows and calves and we found it was all about separation,” Von Keyserlingk said. “They hate the fact that the cow and calf are separated.”
There is a great divide, Von Keyserlingk said.
“There are free stall barns where cows never go on pasture and the picture the public has of cows on pasture with calves,” she said. “We are so far apart.”
To move forward, Von Keyserlingk said, it is important for the dairy industry to talk about its vision, as well as an operational plan on how to achieve that vision.
“This is something animal agriculture has to do because otherwise somebody is going to tell us what to do,” she said.
In addition, Von Keyserlingk said, it is important for those in dairy industry to listen and share lessons learned with producers around the world.
“There is lots of talk about minimum standards and enforcement,” she said. “There are very few bad actor farms that make the rest of the industry look bad because as soon as there is an undercover video it hurts everybody.”
It is also key that dairymen should give the notion they are working to get better.
“That is an opportunity,” Von Keyserlingk said. “I believe we have to move on from individual calf housing because it’s something the public is not going to accept in the long run.”