The 27th American Dairy Science Association Discover Conference, held the last week in May, focused on strategies for improving dairy cattle welfare. The objective of the conference was to engage the dairy industry in a conversation of the growing importance of addressing key welfare concerns industry-wide.
The following industry experts were in attendance and provided their thoughts on information presented there and the discussion it generated.
- Mark Armfelt, DVM, Dairy Technical Consultant, Elanco Dairy Business
- Greg Henderson, Regional Sales Manager, Diamond V
- Scott Nordstrom, Director of Dairy Technical Services, Merck Animal Health
- Dan Weary, Professor, University of British Columbia
- Brian Wesemann, Director of Sales, Calf-Tel / Hampel Animal Care
What was the main take-home message for you from the conference?
ARMFELT: There is a wide range of opinions about what constitutes animal welfare, many of which are very contrary to what dairy farmers currently do.
HENDERSON: There is a lot of interest from the academic community specific to the topic of dairy cattle welfare. I was really intrigued by the lack of dairy producers or owners of large dairies that were attending the event.
The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) did have their representative at the event. At the end of the day, retailers that have brands linked to a specific supply source in the dairy supply chain drive the animal welfare bus. They will not allow the value of their brands to be diminished by less-than-acceptable animal care standards.
NORDSTROM: Many of the decisions being made by the large food manufacturers regarding welfare are arbitrary. A minority is driving these.
WEARY: Engage with your neighbors. This means more than just talking but also listening to understand their values and beliefs about dairying.
WESEMANN: The animal welfare discussion is not new. There is documentation of writings from BC to present day on this topic. Animal welfare is a dynamic, complex and ever-evolving discussion. Animal welfare cannot be achieved with a single set of standards, as similar environments provide very different results.
What one thought did you have during the conference that had never occurred to you before?
ARMFELT: That science may not play a very big role in the development of animal welfare standards.
HENDERSON: Let’s be careful to not create a “Trojan Horse” for the animal welfare activist or community to use as they try to eliminate dairy proteins as a safe food choice for consumers or increase the price of dairy by implementing unrealistic standards so many people cannot afford dairy proteins in their food budget.
There could be unintended results from a lot of non-animal agriculture people creating systems of care that do not improve upon the excellent animal care standards already in place. As an industry, let’s focus on continuous improvement of animal care from the farm gate to the dinner plate.
NORDSTROM: Many of the things we are calling welfare have been being addressed for years, they have simply been called other things, i.e., heat abatement, cow comfort, etc.
WEARY: The most original idea was that every cow on our farms should come with an “end-of-life plan,” meaning that the costs associated with a humane and respectful last few weeks of her life need to be accounted for when we take on the responsibility of bringing her onto our farm.
WESEMANN: A consumer’s actions when purchasing are not reflected when voting or polling. A consumer, when polled, will indicate they are willing to pay a premium – but not do so when purchasing. Voting is a poll. So industries need to communicate differently to voters, especially listen differently to find common ground.
In your opinion, what is the lowest-hanging fruit to improve in terms of animal
ARMFELT: Pain management
HENDERSON: Dehorning calves and the education of specific brands of dairy products specific to animal care down on the farm
NORDSTROM: Basic worker training on animal handling
WEARY: The lowest-hanging – in the sense that we all agree this needs to be done – is reducing the high rates of lameness, calf morbidity and mortality, transition cow disease, etc. This is important and ongoing work but not easy to solve quickly.
The lowest-hanging – in the sense it would be easy to achieve tomorrow if only we could agree – would be stop tail docking and start providing pain relief for disbudding. Many farms do this now, but who in the U.S. industry is willing to take the leadership to make this happen?
WESEMANN: Have real conversations with voters and do not be angry, mad or upset about the disconnect. Dairies and people working with animals overwhelmingly respect the responsibility they have to care for animals. Find common ground to share that fact as often as possible in ways you are most effective. PD
The 28th Discover Conference is scheduled for Oct. 6-9, 2014, and will focus on starch for ruminants. Visit the website for more information about past and future conferences.