The new National Dairy FARM Program just introduced by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) is a proactive effort by the dairy industry to do for animal welfare what it failed to do for rBST, says NMPF's Chris Galen.
The public's concerns over the bovine growth hormone created "a domino effect that swept quickly” over the nation, says Galen, senior vice president of communications. Consumers' opposition to rBST forced many processors to require producers to stop using the production-boosting technology on their dairies.
"A similar dynamic could happen with animal welfare if we just sit back,” he says. "With a national program, we can either be in the driver's seat or dragged kicking and screaming.”
Created to boost consumer confidence in the U.S. dairy industry, the FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program will demonstrate producers' commitment to the highest level of animal well-being and quality assurance, NMPF says.
The voluntary program will be available this fall to all dairy producers. Co-ops and processors may also choose to participate.
"For the silent majority of consumers who want dairy products but are increasingly queasy about the perceived industrialization of agriculture, this is a program that has teeth, third-party verification and is science-based,” Galen says.
A core component of FARM
– and a first step for program participants -- is NMPF's revised "Caring for Dairy Animals” manual. Due out this fall, it details best management practices for animal care, including health, facilities and housing, nutrition, equipment and milking procedures, and transportation and handling. The manual's content adheres to the principles and guidelines of 2008's National Dairy Animal Well-Being Initiative.
Training and informational DVDs will also be provided. A quick reference guide that's easy for producers to use on their dairies will be available as well.
Once they have completed FARM's educational component, producers will undergo an on-farm evaluation by a trained veterinarian, Extension agent or co-op field staff member.
These "second-party” evaluators will assess a dairy's animal well-being practices using the manual's guidelines, and then give the producer a status report. If necessary, they'll also provide the producer with an action plan for improvement. Galen expects FARM to be ready to undertake such evaluations in 2010. Dairies will probably be expected to undergo an evaluation every three years.
Starting in 2011, FARM will begin a third-party verification program. FARM will employ and pay independent auditors to conduct quantifiable, objective verification that the dairy is providing appropriate cow care.
Not all participants, however, will go through an audit. Those who do will be determined by a statistical sampling, much as Gallup does for its polls, Galen says. Third-party verification will take place every year but only on randomly selected dairies.
"Funding for the third-party verification is still a question, but we envision that the cost will be borne by the marketing entity, such as a co-op,” Galen says. "It would be ideal if the cost could be passed on to retailers, but that's not likely.”
While various animal welfare
programs already exist, Galen points out that a national standards system was needed because milk is marketed nationally. "The top five food marketers sell over 50% of the groceries,” Galen says.
He compares the dairy industry's need for a national animal welfare standard to what the organic industry has done. Ten to 15 years ago, with organic products growing in popularity, its leaders worked with USDA to implement a national standard and a label to underscore the methods under which organic products were brought to market. The organic certification process has undergone scrutiny and continues to be tweaked, but it carries weight and credibility with customers, Galen says.
Although FARM has a logo, it's not likely that a label will be developed for dairy products that originate under the program. "We just don't have the resources to spend on something like a ‘Real Seal,'” Galen says.
NMPF hopes that in three to five years FARM's database will provide strong numbers to support its goals.
Producers may be reluctant
to start a formal animal welfare program with this year's financial downturn, but Galen stresses that FARM is a long-term initiative.
"Prices will ebb and flow,” he says. "But what we don't see changing is the scrutiny of what's happening on farms.”
Moreover, Galen urges producers to keep an open mind.
"Don't judge this program as a prohibitive, expensive undertaking until you see what the standards are,” he says. "It's not going to ask you to make a huge investment or do much differently from what you already do.”