This program teaches efficient and humane handling of dairy cattle, with as much focus on cows as on the handlers.
By Dr. Katharine F. Knowlton, The Colonel Horace E. Alphin Professor of Dairy Science, Virginia Tech
Consumers are increasingly demanding transparency in food systems. Millennials especially want to know where their food comes from and how it was produced. Food safety has always been a leading concern but increasingly our customers expect both environmental sustainability and humane treatment of farm animals.
Because consumers are so disconnected from agriculture, the occasional horrific video depicting abusive practices are incredibly damaging. Most in the dairy industry find it frustrating that the public is so quick to believe these videos depict reality, but from the customer’s perspective, how can they know otherwise? While a very small portion of the general public hold extremist views regarding the rights of animals, this minority are well organized, well-funded, and loud.
One obvious response to this demand for increased transparency is the array of new initiatives of dairy retailers focused on ensuring animal welfare in their supply chain. These retailers are seeking some degree of assurance that they won’t end up on national news as the unwitting purchaser of product from the latest bad actor revealed by video. Retailers tend to get what they want, and in response most milk processors are either imposing or exploring some form of welfare audits.
Another response to this challenge is demonstrated by the growing number of farmers who are seeing it as opportunity and opening their farms to consumers -- either literally through farm tours or virtually through blogs and web pages depicting actual on-farm activities. These include small farms and large, from New England to California, and those who do so are performing an important service to the industry.
Nearly all dairy farmers embrace these increased expectations for humane handling of dairy cattle, but incorporating this on their farms isn’t easy. For instance many managers find it difficult to find experienced workers to staff their farm. That the demand for quality labor exceeds supply in many parts of the country is not new news, but increased expectations for humane handling exacerbate it.
For this reason, audits and other programs that seek to affirm a farm’s good practices fill only part of the need. What if the farmer simply doesn’t have access to a stable supply of quality labor with ‘cow sense’? Also, if we’re honest, even some who grew up in the industry have, over time, adopted practices that may not stand up to public scrutiny.
Cows can drive us crazy at times – they won’t enter the parlor, they won’t load onto the trailer, and they just won’t go from where they are to where they need to be. Whether its dry cows that need to move to the close up barn, fresh cows who need to move to the main barn fresh pen, or heifers that need to move from pasture to the breeding pen, for supposed ‘herding’ animals, they sure don’t herd very well.
On-farm training programs can help address both aspects of this challenge – employees who don’t know how to work with cows and cows who don’t know how to be worked with. One such program gaining popularity is the www.dairystockmanship.com training program. Based on established principles of animal behavior, this program teaches efficient and humane handling of dairy cattle, with training focused as much on the cows as on the handlers.
The central principle of this training is that proper handling isn’t magic, isn’t something available only to a gifted few ‘whisperers’. Instead, using observations of behavior and of responses to stimulus, we can reinforce desired behavior in cows, and reduce undesired behaviors. With knowledge of some basic behavioral science, and in-pen experience applying this science, we can train cows to do what we want them to do. Trained staff plus trained cows equals animal handling practices that will stand up to scrutiny.
Let’s start by listing two seemingly unrelated behavioral observations of how cows respond to stimulus, and consider how these can be used to reinforce desired behaviors. In our next article we’ll explain how we can use this information on the farm.
1) With their eyes on the side of their head cows have excellent peripheral vision but can’t see behind themselves without turning their head. Think of the sign you see on trucks – “If you can’t see my mirror, I can’t see you.” Similarly, if you can’t see the cow’s eye, she can’t see you.
2) Like most animals, cows have a ‘flight zone’ or more accurately an ‘escape zone’. When a human or anything perceived as a threat enters that zone, the cow will seek to escape. One application is intuitive – if you crowd a cow she’ll usually bolt.
These observations seem unrelated and primarily negative. But is there a way we can use our knowledge of how cows sense their environment coupled with our knowledge of escape zone principles to encourage behaviors that we want? The good news is that cows learn from every interaction. It’s up to us to use this to create the calm, efficient, and yes, humane system of dairy herd management that our consumers expect.
Dr. Katharine F. Knowlton is the Colonel Horace E. Alphin Professor of Dairy Science at Virginia Tech University. Contact Knowlton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 540-231-5287.