Animal rights activists have pushed the discussion on animal welfare to a point where it has become a real concern for consumers who enter grocery stores and restaurants.
Initiatives like the National Dairy FARM Program are assisting in changing those perceptions by sitting across the table with retailers to help address the issue of animal care and telling dairy producers’ stories to consumers.
FARM, or Farmers Assuring Responsible Management, managed by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), sets national standards for dairy animal care and the production of wholesome milk. FARM is designed to create a culture of continuous improvement to inspire dairy farmers to do things a little better day after day.
“Animal care is quite frankly one of the most difficult challenges facing our industry,” says Jim Mulhern, NMPF president and CEO. He spoke last week at Dairy Today’s Elite Producer Business Conference in Las Vegas.
Farms are being put under the microscope as their practices are being watched not only by animal rights activists, but by retailers and shoppers.
“It is on the minds of consumers all around the country. People buying our products want to know where their food came from and how it was raised,” Mulhern says.
The American Humane Association indicates nearly 95% of respondents in a recent study are “very concerned about farm animal welfare.” That’s up 7% from last year’s survey.
Tail docking is the number one animal welfare complaint expressed to retailers and processors by consumers, says Mulhern. The recent announcement to move up the phase-out date of tail docking is key to addressing that concern.
“Really, [the ban on tail docking] came about because it wasn’t a practice that could be supported or defended in the industry,” Mulhern says. Various university research studies show tail docking provides no improvement in milk quality.
“The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners have both taken positions opposing the routine use of tail docking,” Mulhern adds.
In 2012, NMPF’s board originally set the timetable to eliminate tail docking by 2022. When the deadline was first set, it was intended to provide time to phase out the practice.
This fall, NMPF’s board decided to move up the effective date to end tail docking to January 1, 2017. That was because major dairy product customers were already setting their own deadlines. And that could have created a situation where some processors and cooperatives would not accept milk from farms using tail docking.
Dairies participating in the FARM Program will, after January 1, 2017, be evaluated to see if they are tail docking. If they are, it will trigger a corrective action plan and follow up evaluations to help keep the farm in compliance.
Since 2009, the FARM Program has aimed to promote best management practices with producer education and assessment via 2nd party evaluations. Currently, more than 93 percent of the nation’s milk supply has enrolled in the program with almost 34,000 on-dairy evaluations completed. Third party evaluations confirm the results.
The FARM Program has also moved from voluntary to mandatory. That will help assure retail partners and customers that dairy producers have the utmost respect for doing what is best for their cattle.
“What we can’t have is animal care becoming a competitive issue in the countryside,” says Mulhern, with different programs run by different organizations and vendors. “To try and use this as a competitive issue is a race to the bottom.”
The FARM Program has partnered with the Beef Checkoffs’ Dairy Beef Quality Assurance certification program and Merck’s Dairy Care365 initiative to help in employee training and producer outreach.