Building on years of industry-driven farm animal welfare progress in Alberta and beyond was the focus of the Livestock Care Conference held here in late March, which featured leading speakers on the latest developments, issues and science in livestock care.
Lead-off program speaker Dr. Gail Golab of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) provided an inside view of how that organization has now formally placed animal welfare as one of its highest priorities and is jumping into the fray of key debates.
“We realize we have sat by the sidelines for too long,” says Golab. “With the increasing public focus on welfare issues, this became ‘the big dog in the room.’ It was not a new topic, but it was something we hadn’t addressed as an isolated priority or policy area.”
AVMA is now developing recommendations for complex issues that are practical and resonate in the court of public opinion, such as the recent debate surrounding Proposition 2 in California. In doing so, it is often providing a more in-depth “whole picture” viewpoint on controversial issues such as sow stalls and laying hen housing.
On the science-based innovation front, Dr. Dan Weary of the University of British Columbia Livestock Welfare Program discussed opportunities for innovations that include “asking the animals” to determine improved practices. For example, Weary showed a video of an experiment where dairy cows selected their own sleeping/feeding areas, choosing among differences in bedding materials and other elements. “You can ask the cows. They vote with their feet,” he said.
The challenge of livestock welfare issues is balancing science, consumer perceptions and the animal, says Weary. “My belief is the best approach is for the sciences to provide solutions that producers want to use willingly. All programs, including well-intentioned programs in response to public perceptions, must consider the animal first and foremost to be effective.”
Attitude and ownership are other critical components of getting any new approach implemented effectively, particularly at the regulatory level, emphasized Dr. Anne Allen of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), who discussed the challenges faced in delivering consistent animal care at Canada’s meat plants. “What you want is ownership from the people on the ground – the stockmen and managers,” says Allen, who along with colleagues has sought to redefine the typical regulator role. “Encouraging them to participate in developing the solutions results in better approaches and stronger buy-in.”
The conference also offered fresh perspective on how to approach conflicts with aggressive opponents of livestock agriculture. Matt Sutton-Vermeulen, a consultant specialized in issues management, noted the pitfalls of typical confrontational styles.
“Speak to the reasonable majority rather than an antagonist on one end of the spectrum,” he says. “Don’t get drawn into a fight you can’t win.”