California will soon be able to prove its cows really are happy. Over the next year, the state's 1,750 dairies will participate in an animal well-being evaluation developed under the new National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Program.
The evaluations are required by California's major producer-owned dairy processors, who want to demonstrate to buyers and consumers that their products come from dairies that take good care of their cows.
"We had been approached by a number of animal welfare programs, but FARM was something the entire California dairy industry could get behind,” says Eric Erba, director of producer and government relations for California Dairies, Inc. (CDI). "Our customers are aware of FARM, and they accept it.”
Launched in 2009, FARM is designed to demonstrate that U.S. milk producers provide excellent animal care. CDI, Dairy Farmers of America, Land O'Lakes and Hilmar Cheese Company have been educating producers and field staffs about the evaluation and verification process.
Workshops have been held across California to let producers know what to expect as the program unfolds. "Attendance was so good, we are providing additional sessions,” says Denise Mullinax of the California Dairy Quality Assurance Program, which organized the workshops.
Most of California's on-farm evaluations will begin in July and be completed in mid-2011. These "second-party” assessments involve a series of questions for the dairy owner and animal observations by the evaluator. Each dairy will be evaluated once every three years.
In most cases, the processor's field staff will conduct the evaluations. Each processor will bear the financial cost. Evaluators will be trained for consistency and uniformity.
In March, Jamie Bledsoe volunteered to be the first California producer to undergo a FARM evaluation.
"It went smoothly,” says Bledsoe, who milks 1,000 cows west of Fresno. "It's a very simple process. It's not pass/fail. It helped us get an accurate picture of the care we provide our ani-mals, so our customers can be assured we're committed to high standards.”
Each evaluation should take two to four hours, says Jim Reynolds of the University of California's School of Veterinary Medicine. Reynolds conducted Bledsoe's evaluation.
"Producers should take these evaluations seriously and be positive about them,” Reynolds says. "It's a good opportunity to see how management and labor are taking care of the animals, and that's key to success in the industry.”
FARM's final step will be third-party verification, beginning in 2011. That will include only randomly selected dairies from a national pool of FARM participants.
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