By Catherine Merlo
When you’re struggling to survive 2009’s price downturn, the idea of adopting an animal well-being program probably doesn’t sit very high on your to-do list.
But the new National Dairy FARM program formally launched Thursday by National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and Dairy Management Inc. is a long-term initiative that’s essential in today’s food marketing channels.
You know very well that California’s Prop 2 animal housing legislation and increased interest from consumers and retailers herald a whole new era of food production scrutiny. As NMPF spokesman Chris Galen says, “We’re in a different place than we were five or 10 years ago. We’ve moved from questions about who produces our food, to how and under what conditions.”
The new FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program is a voluntary, nationwide program designed to bring consistency and uniformity to animal care on dairies. It encompasses three steps: 1) education, 2) on-farm evaluations and 3) objective, third-party verification.
Producers, co-ops, processors, and state and regional dairy organizations all can – and should – participate, FARM officials say. The program not only gives companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s assurances that the dairy industry is meeting animal well-being responsibilities, but helps counter the misinformation that keeps popping up from negative sources.
“We need to speak with a unified voice on animal care in the dairy industry so that consumers have confidence that our animals are well cared for and that our products are safe,” says Karen Johnson, a North Carolina veterinarian, milk producer and chair of the NMPF animal welfare technical writing committee. Johnson spoke at Thursday’s news conference announcing the FARM launch at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis.
Educational materials will be available in a few weeks. They’ll include a hefty technical manual, a quick reference manual and a video. You’ll be able to get these through the National Dairy Farm Web site at http://www.nationaldairyfarm.com/index.html.
FARM’s “Caring for Dairy Animals” manual details best management practices for all areas of animal care, including health, facilities and housing, nutrition, equipment and milking procedures, and transportation and handling. The manual’s content adheres to the principles and guidelines of 2008’s National Dairy Animal Well-Being Initiative.
Once your dairy has completed that educational component, you’ll undergo an on-farm evaluation by a trained veterinarian, Extension agent or co-op field staff member. These “second-party” evaluators will assess your dairy’s animal well-being practices using the manual’s guidelines, and then give you a status report. If necessary, they’ll also provide you with an action plan for improvement. Galen expects FARM to be ready to undertake such evaluations in 2010. Dairies will probably be expected to undergo an evaluation every three years.
But it’s the third component – the third-party verification – that really gives FARM its teeth. Starting in 2011, FARM will employ and pay independent auditors to conduct quantifiable, objective verification that your dairy is providing appropriate cow care. Not all participants, however, will go through an audit. Those who do will be determined by a statistical sampling, much as Gallup does for its polls. Third-party verification will take place every year but only on randomly selected dairies.
Program costs are still being determined. Costs and other program details will depend on the number of participants, as well as the size, type and geography of participants.
Of course, the FARM program isn’t the only animal well-being effort out there. And Galen says that it’s not the program’s intent to be competitive with existing regional and state animal well-being programs. But since milk and dairy products are marketed nationally and internationally today, the FARM program provides national customers with a single platform that assures on-farm animal well-being.
You may be balking at the thought of taking on one more responsibility right now. But FARM officials urge you to think long term. “Prices will ebb and flow,” Galen told me a couple of weeks ago. “But what we don’t see changing is the scrutiny of what’s happening on farms.”
Moreover, Galen urges you not to “judge this program as a prohibitive, expensive undertaking until you see what the standards are. It’s not going to ask you to make a huge investment or do much differently from what you already do.”
You’re probably already doing everything right on your dairy when it comes to animal well-being. It’s not only time to tell that story – but to prove it. Efforts like the National Dairy FARM program may be the perfect opportunity.
Catherine Merlo is Western editor for Dairy Today. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.