We used to believe — and many companies still do — that we could maintain consumer trust by going through the exercise of a food safety or production protocol.
We have discovered in this very tribal age of transparency, this is not sufficient. Consumers are expecting actions to be taken and are moving away from science.
On the national economic side we share a country that continues to focus on commodities and has long suffered a food trade deficit. The focus now is on both adding more value and becoming a trusted food source — if not the most trusted food source in the world — for both our buyers and our public.
It’s a tall order because the system — from conception to cellophane — must adapt to build that trust and that includes animal welfare. To look into the future, we must first learn lessons from the past.
In my early years, I was in the feedlot and took a special interest in the welfare of the cattle. Through diligence and the expertise of our veterinarian, we were highly successful in reducing morbidity and mortality in calves and yearlings. Understanding the effects of commingling, density, feed, weather, and buying conditions all played a key role in establishing the health plan.
- More with Brenda Schoepp on the Alberta Farmer: Getting ready to deal with consumers’ expectations of the food system
Shrinkage, as expressed in the weight an animal loses when stressed, was my focus and I chose to conduct a literary search on the subject. Reading the leading research on the subject at the time, it became clear that shrinkage was a result of human behaviour. The cattle lost weight when stressed during weaning, handling, loading, sorting, processing, and feeding.
There are two types of shrinkage in cattle. Excretory shrink happens when the contents of the stomach, bladder and bowel are voided. Tissue shrinkage occurs when moisture is pulled from internal organs to fuel the calf and happens when there is excessive dehydration and hunger. Tissue shrinkage is bad news because the damage is done and recovery is slow.
Although every cattle feeder likes a little compensatory gain from a bit of shrinkage, in those times, the situation often became excessive, costing both the seller and the buyer. The real loss was to the calf that had a very high risk of morbidity and mortality, especially after commingling and trying to re-establish their role in the social structure of a new pen (often a very high-density one).
I took the message of how to reduce shrinkage to the farming community. I talked about gathering, weaning, handling, sorting, standing, loading, mingling, feeding, processing, and what happens to the animal during the marketing process. During that time I wrote several series of articles on shrinkage and gave hundreds of presentations. That’s a lot of encouragement!
For my efforts, I was threatened and offered to be bought out because some marketing agencies at the time felt threatened. Weigh and pay off truck was a new concept as were standard feed and water pens. It took nearly three decades of persuasion to get to the point of marketing today. Cattle producers can sell at home electronically (even setting the price point ahead), off truck, pen to pen without running through a ring, through the ring with feed and water (depending on the facility), or direct with a pencil shrinkage. It took time, but the concept did take hold.
The point here is that we no longer have that privilege of time.
Agriculture and ag-related activities are largely transparent and the world is watching. Populations now move in tribes (think of the Trump tribe) and are adamant in their beliefs. They want the very best for the food animals we raise and put animal care in the same category as human rights.
At the recent Alberta Farm Animal Care meeting in Olds, the director of dairy stewardship at one of the largest U.S. dairies said slaughterhouses are no longer seeing undercover video of bad deeds. That’s because “they got it” and followed the advice of Temple Grandin on facility design and the handling of slaughter cattle. She reminded us that it is the farmers’ responsibility to ensure their livestock are in good health before leaving home saying, “How we send our animals to slaughter is a direct reflection of our care and compassion.”
As we face the future, the stress of marketing should be considered ahead of time to avoid problems and that goes across the board from the very young to the very old food animal.
Our codes of livestock care and certification processes won’t matter if consumers believe they see abuse or lack of care on farms. As Candice Croney of the Perdue Centre of Animal Welfare and Science reminds us, “We tend to wait until someone tells us what to do.”
That is a luxury farming can no longer afford.