Producers need to talk and think about animal welfare differently to gain the trust of consumers, says an official overseeing animal welfare at one of the largest dairies in the U.S.
“Everything happens through people,” Jennifer Walker, a veterinarian and director of dairy stewardship at Dean Foods, said at the recent Livestock Care conference hosted by Alberta Farm Animal Care.
“It is people who make the difference. If I have one person on my farm who treats animals incorrectly, 100 per cent of my animals are affected.”
But animal welfare is much more wide ranging than not abusing animals, said Walker.
For instance, improving animal welfare standards is also key to increasing production and feeding the world, she said.
“How are we going to do that if we accept current disease and death rates?” she said. “They will continue to climb if we don’t address them. When I look at sick or dead animals, what I see is a waste. I see a failure in my system that I’ve implemented on the farm, and in my ability not to waste food. Poor welfare is unsustainable.”
For many large food retailers, animal welfare is about protecting a brand. Customers expect ethical behaviour, and their expectations regarding welfare of livestock are increasingly influenced by their relationship with their pets.
“Special interest groups have capitalized on that concern,” said Walker. “They’re not creating the concern for animal welfare, but are capitalizing on the fact that our collective industries have not addressed them. We didn’t get ahead of it, and they’re taking advantage of it. If we’re going to manage this, we have to figure out why we’ve been on the wrong end of this conversation.”
Even the way people talk about farming adds to the disconnect.
Consumers trust farmers, but the word ‘producer’ doesn’t resonate with them, said Walker.
“I would argue that people might produce corn, but we raise cows. We are caregivers. So we are farmers and we shouldn’t be surprised because people are a little bit disconnected because we tend to talk about ourselves in very industrialized terms.”
In a consumer’s mind, large-scale farmers who view agriculture as a business instead of a way of life are seen as putting profit above all else. Another mistake that farmers make is talking about how they care for their animals to ensure productivity.
“Take a moment and think about what a consumer hears,” said Walker. “A consumer hears that if you could not take care of your cow and still make money, you would. In my opinion, when you’re out there talking to the public, the only thing that will resonate with consumers is, ‘I take good care of my cows because it is the right thing to do.’”
Consumer trust is based on ethics, rather than economics or science.
“We need to reconcile that ethical knowing is different from other knowing,” she said. “It’s not science based. It’s not made to describe how the world is, but how the world ought to be.”
Trust is built with transparency and that requires accountability.
“What we’re faced with today are not questions about what we can do, but about what we should do,” she said.
And what does that look like on a dairy farm? Walker gave several examples.
It means not keeping lame cows just because they are good milkers. It means never shipping downers to slaughter or taking unfit animals to sale barns. It means everyone working on the farm is properly trained and knows how to treat animals. It even means zero tolerance for verbal abuse of animals because that is often the first step to physical abuse.
And it means looking at your farm practices the way a typical consumer would.
“We have to understand what that looks like to the public and ask if that’s how we want to be portrayed to the world,” she said.