If we regulate “industries” but trust “professions” to regulate themselves, could dairy production become a profession? Some recent developments around farm-animal welfare make me think it can and should.

In the mid-1900s, animal and dairy production entered a period of change when millions of small, mixed farms were gradually replaced by fewer, larger farms. To the producers who experienced it, the change was modernization, where specialization, automation and economies of scale led to far greater production efficiency.

But to the urban public, the change was seen as industrialization, and that perception – that farms had become “factory farms,” that farming had become “industrial agriculture” – triggered a concern that was both old and new.

The old part was the belief that this “industry,” like other industries, needed to be regulated. This, of course, was exactly what happened during the Industrial Revolution when governments began a long process of regulating factories to protect the welfare of factory workers, mostly by setting standards for factory environments and the length of time people could be required to work there.

The new part of the concern was that the “workers” in this case were animals. Yet, true to the old pattern of regulating factories, the new standards and regulations focused on features of the physical environment and on the length of time animals could be kept there.


In Europe, for example, regulations called for more space for laying hens, air quality standards for broilers and limits on the time sows can be kept in narrow stalls.

But there is an important difference between factories and intensive farms. When factory workers spend only part of their time in factories, improving the environment and limiting hours of work are sensible measures to protect their welfare.

But when farm animals spend their entire lives under human care, their welfare depends on much more than just the physical environment. It also depends on health care, nutrition, handling and management – the things we commonly call “animal husbandry” or “animal care.”

This difference is nicely illustrated by some recent examples of “animal welfare benchmarking.” Benchmarking involves visiting a number of farms and collecting a few key data points such as the number of cows that are lame and the number with leg lesions.

In one benchmarking study, my colleagues visited 121 dairy farms, all with freestalls. They found that the percentage of lame cows ranged from only 5 percent on the best farm to an appalling 85 percent on the worst. Leg lesions were even more variable.

The number of cows with lesions ranged from 0 percent on the best farm to 100 percent of cows on the worst. When they divided the farms by region – New England states, California, British Columbia and so on – they found that much the same variation from farm to farm occurred within each region.

Other studies have also found extreme differences between farms. A Minnesota study compared 50 farms, all with freestalls, and found that lameness ranged from 3 percent on the best farm to 57 percent on the worst. A study of 205 farms in the United Kingdom found the number of lame and severely lame cows ranged from 0 to 79 percent.

Thus, even with the same type of physical environment, some of the most basic animal welfare indicators range from excellent on some farms to terrible on others. Why? The answer is almost certainly that animal welfare depends so much on the skill, knowledge and attentiveness of animal producers and their staff.

So if we want to improve animal welfare – along with food safety, environmental protection and other important goals – we need to foster and reward a high level of skill, knowledge and dedication in producers and the people they employ. That emphasis on human skill, knowledge and dedication is, very roughly, what separates a profession from an industry.

What is a profession? They aren’t all the same, of course, but if we take medicine and engineering as examples, we see some key features. First, participation in a profession requires competence, typically demonstrated to peers.

Second, practices are based on science and change in response to new research. And third, ethical acceptability or “social license” is maintained by adhering to the ethical expectations of society through a system of self-regulation.

Based on these three criteria, could dairy producers re-shape their occupation to be more like a profession?

Let’s take competence: People can’t just decide to be doctors; they have to demonstrate their ability first. Today, many dairy producers would consider it outrageous to make them demonstrate their competence before taking up dairy farming, and 50 years ago, when millions of people kept a few cows, any such requirement would have been impossible to implement.

Now, however, countries like the U.S. and Canada have far fewer dairy farmers than doctors. We have also seen a growing trend for certification of farms according to standards for animal welfare, food safety and other issues.

Some of these programs were created by retail and restaurant companies to promote confidence in their own product lines. But if this process were managed by producers themselves, this would move animal production much closer to a professional model.

Next up, science. This is an easier one because dairy production is already science-based to an important degree. The necessary step is for animal welfare standards and practices to change in response to new scientific research.

As one example, research has consistently shown that tail-docking dairy cows does not improve cow cleanliness or udder health, and on that basis the Canadian Code of Practice for dairy cattle now stipulates that cows should not be docked except in those cases where it is medically necessary.

Finally, could animal producers develop a self-regulatory system to show that they are adhering to the ethical expectations of society? Here again, the growing trend toward standards and certification, if driven by producers themselves, would be a significant move toward self-regulation, but the standards would need to take public expectations into account.

This would mean active engagement between producers and the public in developing standards for animal welfare as well as for food safety and other issues where the public has a stake.

In these various respects, dairy farming is not currently functioning like a profession, but changes are occurring which make a professional model look more feasible than ever before.

What would this achieve? First, the benchmarking results make me think that a professional emphasis on skill, knowledge and performance would be the most promising way to ensure a high standard of animal welfare.

Second, in time I believe it would increase the trust in producers that was eroded when the public thought that dairy production had become an “industry.” And third, it would make producers the active designers of the standards they follow. PD

David Fraser