Dairy co-ops and other milk handlers will start voluntary animal care and welfare inspections this month and next in the National Dairy FARM Program.
FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) was created by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and is funded in part with dairy checkoff dollars. It's designed to assure retailers and consumers that dairy producers are using industry "best practices” in caring for their cattle.
The program is not without controversy. Some producers fear it's an intrusion in their business, dictating how they must care for their animals. In contrast, some animal welfare specialists say the program has no teeth and will not force offenders to improve care if there are deficiencies.
"The first round of on-farm evaluations is to create a baseline,” says Betsy Flores, NMPF director of regulatory affairs. "We're gathering data to see where we are and to see what practices are being used on farms.
"Then we can identify areas were more education is needed, see if there are regional issues or issues with specific production practices or facilities.”
Most milk buyers will use their own field staffs to conduct the on-farm evaluations. They are being trained to evaluate nine different areas, ranging from newborn calves and nutrition to animal health and facilities. The evaluations will take two to three hours per farm, depending on the size and scope of the operation.
The producers will then be given a status report, and the intent is to follow up at least every three years to enable the producer to track progress.
In the second half of 2011, a random sample of evaluated farms will be verified by an independent third party to ensure the evaluations are being done accurately and consistently.
Marcia Endres, a dairy cattle welfare specialist at the University of Minnesota, was at first critical of the program. For example, on lameness, it suggests 90% or more of the herd must score 2 or lower on a five-point locomotion scale.
Research she and her grad students have done on nearly 100,000 cows in Midwest freestall facilities shows few herds will probably meet this standard. "Our average for score 2 or lower has been 75% to 86%,” she says.
But FARM is not an audit or pass/fail, she acknowledges. "It's designed more for continual improvement and education, and for pointing out areas for improvement,” she says.
"The industry needs to do this type of program first, and not have dairy welfare standards mandated by McDonald's or Kroger or some other retailer.”