Industry leaders speak out on animal well-being programs

October 12, 2009 07:00 PM
Joan Behr, Foremost Farms, Baraboo, Wis.

A producer's decision to implement an animal welfare program depends on whether he or she is marketing milk directly to a customer or going through a cooperative processor. In the case of marketing through Foremost Farms, the decision to participate in an animal welfare program would probably be driven by us, based on customer feedback and expectations.

Foremost Farms is a member of National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and we've been providing feedback on the National Dairy FARM Program. One of our hopes is that this program would be recognized as credible, comprehensive and providing the assurances customers need when buying milk from farms where animal welfare practices are followed.

We want to be part of a program that's nationally recognized and provides credible assurance that customers are looking for. We haven't yet settled on a program, but we are following the progress of the National Dairy FARM Program from NMPF.

Most dairy producers understand there's a definite disconnect between consumers and modern farming practices. Quite a few producers realize that to do business in the future, they're going to have to provide assurances their animals are well-taken care of.

Behr served on the National Dairy Animal Well-Being Coalition in 2007-08, co-chairing its producer communication subcommittee. She is also part of the team at Foremost Farms looking to select an animal welfare program for its members. Behr is director of communications and employee development for Foremost Farms, one of the nation's top 10 dairy cooperatives.

Bill Van Dam, Alliance of Western Milk Producers and Dairy Cares, Sacramento, Calif.

One of our primary goals is to have a program accepted nationally with the objective of having no company use their animal welfare system or program as a marketing advantage.

Among processors, there are definitely degrees of pressure from customers. Some want an animal welfare program now; others are willing to wait. The general indication is that most just need to see that there is an acceptable animal welfare program.

Undoubtedly, it's smarter to have a national animal welfare program, and we have determined that working with National Milk Producers Federation and Dairy Management Inc. on a national program is the right way to achieve our objectives.

When will we know that animal welfare programs have been successful? When the noise level goes down.

The truth is, the vast majority of dairy producers are already doing it right, except for little tweaks. But we need to provide the customer with statistical proof through animal welfare verification that we're doing it right.

Van Dam is executive director of the Alliance of Western Milk Producers, an association of dairy cooperatives whose members include California Dairies, Inc., and Dairy Farmers of America–Western Council. He is also chairman of Dairy Cares, formerly the Community Alliance for Responsible Environmental Stewardship (CARES), which promotes economic and environmental sustainability for California's dairies.

Jay Gordon, Washington State Dairy Federation, Elma, Wash.

I understand why National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) started this process for a national animal well-being program. The questions we are being asked are not just local. The same questions I get in the capitol in Olympia are likely the same questions that are being asked of National Milk staff in the halls of Congress or by our cooperative sales staff as they look across the table at one of our few buyers.

We all need to be able to explain and defend what we, the producer (and the processor) do and how we do it. I know I do in Washington, and I know Jim Tillison or Jerry Kozak do in the other Washington.

A national animal welfare program could succeed if it followed the path taken 70 years ago when Congress started conservation districts. Rather than trying to implement an on-the-ground welfare manual/audit/checklist, the dairy industry should:

1. Promote a national goal of having every area form a locally established and supported program, using the national model as a guide, reference or "model.” NMPF/DMI should offer support, science and encouragement for local regional groups, like the Northwest Sustainable Dairies Program, that want to establish an animal well-being program.

2. Get out of the way as local groups wrestle with making it work for their area.

3. Then ask the regions to communicate information back to national leaders and staff. That would include reports on the group's efforts and progress.

Producers already know 99% of what they should do to care for their cows, calves, kids, electricity, milk quality and to protect the environment. But 99% of the population does not live on dairy farms, and they don't understand what we do, what we do right and how we know that what we do right is supported by science and years of experience.

In Washington and Oregon, we have the Northwest Sustainable Dairies Program (NWSDP) in place. We designed our program to outline what expectations we producers have for how we care for our employees, our animals, our natural resources such as water, air and energy, and our milk quality.

Our goal was to tell the story about how we care and the care we take regarding these things. The simple version is that NWSDP is about Northwest dairy farmers, not for Northwest dairy farmers. Simply put, far more often, day in and day out, our farmers take exceptional care of their animals, natural resources and milk quality. But we don't tell that story to our customers!

Gordon is executive director of Washington State Dairy Federation, whose 390 members make up 97% of the state's dairy producers. He is also a dairy producer.

Michael Payne, California Dairy Quality Assurance Program, Davis, Calif.

I'm a big fan of a national animal well-being plan. I'm impressed and gratified that National Milk Producers Federation and Dairy Management Inc. stepped up to the plate to provide the leadership which resulted in a framework that could result in a national animal welfare program, which is the brass ring!

A national animal welfare program with clear, well-defined standards really has two targets: corporate buyers and your typical, nonactivist dairy consumer. A well constructed, science-based program will allow processors to compete in national and international markets without having to meet multiple standard sets from multiple buyers, something in the best interest of processors and producers alike.

No animal well-being program will probably ever satisfy certain activist populations. However, a national program with understandable, verified standards will provide reassurance to the average consumer, who simply wants to be able to consume dairy products without having to worry about how they were produced. When buyers and consumers are happy and regulators aren't involved, we can get on with the business of producing nature's perfect food.

Payne is a veterinarian and the program director for the California Dairy Quality Assurance Program.

Jim Krahn, Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, Portland, Ore.

Our program, Northwest Sustainable Dairies, was not established to get producers more money for their milk; it's to hold their position in the market. Through it, we developed self-imposed industry standards and best management practices for animal care and other important dairy issues.

Ninety-five percent of Washington and Oregon producers are already doing what's in our manual.

We could have begun with a checklist of what producers are doing on their dairies, but that doesn't tell the consumer anything. It creates more questions. So the basis of the Northwest Sustainable Dairies program is that it was written for the consumer about the producer. It was clear that you can't write one document for both. Consumers may not understand the word "ration,” but they do understand "diet.”

Our manual also provides the processor and retailer with a checklist if they want verification of what producers are doing. Our manual was not written to create more requirements but for producers to get credit for what they're already doing. It's the processor who determines where dairy producers go in regard to animal welfare.

But why stop with just animal welfare? If we're going to be industry leaders, we also need to address energy, labor, milk safety and the environment. The Northwest Sustainable Dairies program does that.

Krahn is the executive director for the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association (ODFA). Northwest Sustainable Dairies is a joint partnership program between ODFA and Washington State Dairy Federation. It represents about 800 dairy producers.

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