The children and I have a map marked with every road I drove in the 20 years in the 1980s and 1990s I spent speaking about animal welfare in Canada. There were a few empty spots, but those travels included hundreds of farm stops and thousands of participants.
It was my mission to bring the message to the farming community about how cattle react to stress. To keep the message alive, I wrote articles, columns and stories about stress, shrink, and the economic cost to the farm.
I was driven by what I saw as a feedlot manager and by what I learned after an exhaustive literary search and dozens of interviews with scientists. In the end, I did it for the cattle because I could put a value on a healthy calf. Everything we do prior to marketing, during marketing and after the calf arrives affects its health and performance.
For my efforts I was bashed about pretty good.
One company tried to buy my silence and another threatened me physically, but most just talked back or yelled from the back of the room. In the end, common sense and perhaps a twinge of guilt prevailed and the introduction of feed and water pens, off-truck weighing, and reduction of commingling was introduced in cattle marketing. Our beef code of practice — adopted in 2013 (30 years later) — has one statement to address this and it reads: Locations receiving cattle should be equipped with personnel or facilities to meet the animals’ needs upon arrival, such as water or feed.
- More with Brenda Schoepp on the Alberta Farmer Express: Lessons to be learned from Quebec’s agriculture and agri-food industry
With three decades behind us, it would seem that we would have learned to make the economic and moral decision as an industry to be proactive on the animal welfare front. But today I can still see the wide gaps in the marketing of young cattle.
An excellent article in Meatingplace laid industry foot-dragging on welfare issues on the line. It features an interview with Dr. Candace Croney, Purdue’s director of the Centre for Animal Welfare Science. As a scientist, Croney comes out of the gate by stating that we should “stop pitting animal welfare against economics,” which is a completely different direction than industry takes. Industry tends to argue the economics of not changing just as it did years ago. It said we can’t put in extra pens, water, feed, or people because of cost.
The cost to the industry in not doing so was eventually seen to be much greater — but that’s not the entire point. It is: Why does someone else have to identify our areas of weakness and why is our first reaction to defend the status quo?
Many times we turn away from the scientific evidence or lack of it, as a stand for the continuation of a process. But Croney says it is more important to have trust and to say things in a way that the public understands than it is to be loaded and armed with science. Our initial reaction to focus on the voice of the problem is a weakness in itself. I have been through these exercises where there is an issue such as a downer cow. The process of handling the cow is the problem — not that a tattle-tale exposed the process (or lack of it).
The public has an expectation that we do what we say. It is not enough to claim good intentions. It is vital to actually bring that promise to life.
The article in Meatingplace went beyond animals in terms of welfare and addressed the issue of farm culture and the value in appreciated employees. Everyone in the food chain has a role to play in the welfare of farm animals and in building trust as a team. If the welfare of the food animal is not part of consciousness, then it will be hard to legislate, regulate or sell to the buying public. As an industry, we need a platform of truthful information backed by science so folks have a go-to place to see what is happening in our barns and on our farms.
It took two decades to bring the issue of cattle stress to life and three decades to get it into a code of practice. It was tough and challenging work as all good causes are. With the information and technology of the day, it need not take another 20 years to address the outstanding areas within the food animal industry.
These creatures are entrusted to our care and how we birth, feed, transport, house, handle, treat, vaccinate, load, stand, sort, and slaughter them is part of our social licence as producer, marketer, and processor. If one person can be a change agent to an industry then an industry can be a change agent to a nation.
It is a simple matter of choice.