December 01, 2012


 Production practices not justified by productivity

Posted Nov. 19, 2012
Dr. Jennifer Walker gives a presentation on the animal welfare views of the public and milkbuying companies as well as veterinarians’ roles in ensuring welfare. (Photo by Greg Cima​)
Dr. Jennifer Walker said public trust in farmers can be supported by, but not based on, science and economics.
She is director of dairy stewardship for Dean Foods, and she said public trust is founded in a belief that farmers share the public’s ethical views on animal treatment.
“We need to recognize that good production does not guarantee good welfare,” she said. “We cannot defend our practices with pounds.
“Why? Because it’s not necessarily true, and it makes us appear ingenuine.”
Dr. Walker made the comments in a presentation at September’s annual conference of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, hosted this year in Montreal. She described the public as increasingly concerned about the treatment and care given to pets and livestock.
“Special interest groups have capitalized on this concern, and, if we are effectively to position ourselves in this dialogue, we must understand how and why we have found ourselves cornered and accused of being irresponsible and, at times, unethical,” she said.
Other presentations and discussions during the conference detailed efforts to reduce stress and suffering. Those presentations and Dr. Walker’s seemed to contrast most sharply with one given by a Nebraska beef producer who described animal health as a means toward profit and indicated that a group of cattle with lower weights and more deaths can be more profitable than another group of cattle for which the opposite is true. 

Guiding, training, investigating

In a meeting of the AABP Animal Welfare Committee, veterinarians described work on best management practices, development of comprehensive statements in response to animal abuse, and development of a publicly available brochure to explain the decisions and methods involved in euthanasia of cattle. Dr. Michael Bolton, committee chair, said in a discussion of euthanasia and slaughter guidance that veterinarians need to make sure cattle have merciful deaths.

Some presenters also discussed ways to reduce cattle stress. For example, two of the conference presenters detailed methods to influence cattle behavior and movement without touching or exciting the animals.

Dr. Franklyn B. Garry, a professor at Colorado State University, cited dairy industry data in estimating about 9 percent of cattle die on dairy farms yearly, a figure he thinks is troublingly high and indicative of welfare problems and unnecessary losses. He thinks dairy veterinarians have not paid close enough attention and have let “bad” become “normal.”

About 1 percent die on beef cow and calf operations and 1.5 percent in feedlots, he said.

On dairy farms, 3 percent is achiev­­­able, according to Dr. Garry. Profoundly improved outcomes could be achieved on dairy farms with more subclinical disease monitoring and better data collection and entry on cow deaths. Dr. Garry said necropsies are the only way to accurately assess the proximate cause of many cow deaths. He noted that necropsies are performed on about 55 percent of cattle that die in feedlots. 

Expanding moral circles

People’s ethics are not changing, but they are applying morals more broadly at the same time as they are becoming further removed from farms, Dr. Walker said. The public sees popular views of animals as having dreams, needs, and wants, and companion animals are the only stable parts of many people’s lives.
Secretly recorded videos have repeatedly shown abuse and poor welfare on farms, and, while veterinary organizations have condemned such behavior, Dr. Walker said the public expects veterinarians to solve or prevent such problems. Instead, she said, corporations with brands at stake have begun to implement their own welfare programs.

“We need to recognize that good production
does not guarantee good welfare.”

Dr. Jennifer Walker, director of dairy stewardship, Dean Foods
Leaders in the companies that buy meat and milk know the consequences of failing to live up to public expectations concerning animal welfare, Dr. Walker said, and they want leadership, documented continuous improvement, action plans, and absolutes such as prohibited practices.
Veterinarians need to make sure farmers are doing what is right for animals, Dr. Walker said, and veterinarians have opportunities to build trust and shape their legacy.