Animal rights activists have pushed the discussion on animal welfare to the point where it has become a real concern for consumers.
Initiatives like the National Dairy FARM Program are assisting in changing the perceptions of animal abuse on farms by sitting across the table from retailers and addressing 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 month at Dairy Today’s Elite Producer Business Conference in Las Vegas.
Farms are increasingly 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.
Tail docking is the No. 1 animal welfare complaint expressed to retailers and processors by consumers, according to 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 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.
After January 1, 2017, dairies participating in the FARM Program will 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 get and keep the farm in compliance.
Since 2009, the FARM Program has aimed to promote best management practices with producer education and assessment via second-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 moved from voluntary to mandatory. That will help assure retail partners and customers 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,” with different programs run by different organizations and vendors, Mulhern says. “To try and use this as a competitive issue is a race to the bottom.”
The FARM Program has joined forces with both the Beef Checkoffs’ Dairy Beef Quality Assurance certification program and Merck’s Dairy Care365 initiative to help in employee training and producer outreach.
Jane Dukes, director of food and consumer communications at Morgan & Myers, has been working with Merck Animal Health to spread the word about Dairy Care365 and the significance of the program.
“Dairy Care365 is an important tool that is available to all to help you be proactive and prepared to implement the policies and procedures in place that will protect not only your animals, but your businesses and your reputations,” Dukes says.
Since 1998, there have been at least 126 videos filmed by animal rights activists who posed as employees on farms. The majority have been taped by the group Mercy For Animals.
“The idea of an undercover investigation is to catch you doing something wrong,” Dukes says.
Individual farms typically aren’t the target; they serve as a vehicle to expose consumers to questionable practices in an effort to advance the agendas of animal rights organizations.
To prevent video investigations, dairy producers should have sound policies, hire the right people and ensure those employees are properly trained.
Dairy Care365 provides those tools through training workshops and numerous online modules. A free helpline that answers questions in case an animal welfare challenge should happen on farm is available to support producers who attend the trainings.
Thus far, Dairy Care365’s free trainings have reached ownership or veterinary care of approximately 25 percent of the U.S. dairy cow herd.