Producers and consumers often differ on animal welfare stances
Animal welfare is often at the forefront of dairy producers’ minds. Without good handling and husbandry practices, the future of their farm could be put in jeopardy.
However, when looking in the mirror, are current standard practices putting the dairy industry at risk?
Marina (Nina) von Keyserlingk, professor of animal welfare with the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada, says some of the techniques used to raise dairy cattle are being questioned by members of the public, including consumers.
“We need to do a better job at listening to the thoughts and values of the various stakeholders in the dairy industry,” von Keyserlingk says.
Criticism of dairy production will have to be addressed with science, both natural and social. “Animal welfare is that intersection where science meets society,” von Keyserlingk says.
It will entail listening to all stakeholders, including consumers, on “what is their vision of the dairy industry,” she says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean doing exactly what consumers want, but it does mean working to understand their concerns.
Practices should resonate with societal values, or they should be altered. The question: How should we alter them?
In the dairy industry, animal welfare means maximizing comfort for high production and good health. For consumers, animal welfare means the animal feels good and is free from fear or pain. “We have this spectrum of values. That is what sometimes makes it challenging,” von Keyserlingk says.
To better understand this dichotomy, von Keyserlingk and her colleagues created a virtual town hall called Cow Views. The platform serves as a safe place to discuss hot topics related to dairy production. Anyone with Internet access can vote on particular practices. Those who vote must also give an articulated response affirming why they chose their position.
Town hall topics on a number of contentious issues have already taken place with hundreds of participants from around the world, but primarily from North America. Participants are randomly assigned into groups of 30 (called mini town halls) to allow for replication.
Tail docking was one of the first practices to be analyzed.
“Regardless of demographic, the majority of people were not in favor of tail docking,” von Keyserlingk says of the results. Only 35% of producers and 20% of veterinarians were in favor of the practice. But an overwhelming 95% of non-dairy participants did not approve of tail docking.
Those opposed to tail docking are backed by science. Numerous studies show that the practice does not
improve udder health and cleanliness, von Keyserlingk says.
“The science is clear: Multiple studies done in three different countries have all shown tail docking does not improve udder cleanliness or health,” she explains. “In fact, a large study that involved about 300 U.S. operations has shown that farms with docked tails had twice as many cows scored as very dirty compared to cows from non-docked farms.”
Pain mitigation during dehorning was also a Cow Views topic. Ninety percent of respondents were in
favor of using some sort of pain relief during dehorning.
Some see delivering pain relief at dehorning as an unnecessary expense. But as von Keyserlingk points out, it accounts for just 0.004% of the cost of raising a heifer. Using pain mitigation is the right thing to do, she says.
Cow-calf separation after birth has also been a rallying cry for animal rights advocates. Of the producers surveyed, 60% said calves should be separated from cows within the first few hours after birth. “Among veterinarians, 100% said calves should be separated for disease reasons,” von Keyserlingk adds.
But more than 90% of individuals not associated with the dairy industry opposed pulling calves off early.
There still needs to be additional scientific research on the practice, but some related data might indicate change is warranted, she adds. USDA–National Animal Health Monitoring System data from 2008 indicated 8% of heifer calves were dying prior to weaning. If the first 48 hours of life were included, it rose to 15% death rates.
“My dad was a beef rancher; he’d have freaked out with mortality rates at 15%,” von Keyserlingk relates.
“We need solid scientific evidence of the pros and cons of cow-calf separation that also looks at these longer-term issues, such as cow and calf mortality, combined with a clear understanding of what all stakeholders think of [it],” she says. “Only then can we design best practices that
ensure the dairy industry is sustainable in the future.”