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The Animal Welfare Maze
Confused by conflicting programs?

By Catherine Merlo |

Getting the story to consumers of how well producers care for their cows is the task at hand, says California’s Jamie Bledsoe.

If you had to choose an animal welfare program for your dairy, which would it be? A regional one, like the Northwest Sustainable Dairy Program or Pennsylvania’s Dairy Animal Care and Quality Assurance (DACQA) program? What about Validus or the new National Dairy FARM Program?

Or are you more likely to just say “no” to any animal welfare program, especially one that opens up your dairy to the time, cost and scrutiny of a third-party audit?

As consumers, national food chains and activists clamor for more information about how food is produced, the dairy industry is responding with numerous programs to address animal well-being. But many industry sources insist that most dairies already follow good animal well-being practices. And until producers are mandated by their processors, many say, dairies won’t adopt formalized animal welfare programs.

Moreover, battered by 2009’s ferocious price downturn, few producers are ready to take on one more requirement.

“Dairymen are confused” by the variety, terminology and demands of animal welfare programs, says Jamie Bledsoe, who milks 1,000 cows at two dairies near Riverdale, Calif., and chairs the Animal Welfare Task Force of Western United Dairymen, a trade association.

“Dairy producers are going broke, and they don’t want to have one more thing thrown at them,” Bledsoe adds. “But customers are asking for animal welfare assurances, and we have to educate producers.”

Many believe the impetus for producers to undertake formal animal well-being programs will come from their processor or marketer.

“The processor has to be the one to bring the program onto the farm and explain it,” says Shelly Mayer, executive director for the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin. She also operates a dairy in southeast Wisconsin and has been active in the industry’s animal welfare efforts.

“The processor is the dairy’s first customer and will be the one that develops an animal welfare program to maintain confidence up the marketing chain that we’re all doing a great job,” she says.

Pennsylvania producer Logan Bower believes a national animal well-being program is a good idea for the dairy industry but fraught with obstacles.

“It’s important that we come up with a national program that all dairymen can agree with,” says Bower, who milks 500 cows near Blain, Pa. “We need to maintain consumer confidence. They’re concerned not just that we put food on the table but how animals are raised.”

Bower was part of the National Dairy Animal Well-Being Initiative, which developed principles and guidelines to show that farmers recognize their ethical obligations to care for their animals. That initiative led to the new FARM program from the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and Dairy Management Inc.

As president of the Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania from 2005 to 2008, Bower also helped create the DACQA program for the state’s producers. He even certified his own dairy under it. Yet few other producers have bought into the DACQA program. In part, Bower says, that’s due to this year’s financial turmoil. But there’s another reason: Not many producers will voluntarily sign up for a program, undergo the training and expose themselves to a third-party audit unless they’re forced to. Bower himself has not been independently audited under his state’s DACQA program.

“There is some economic benefit to being part of an animal well-being program, but you’ve got to dig deep to find it,” the Pennsylvania producer says. “It’s mostly in the quality of cull animals, but that’s not a big moneymaker, so it’s not a big carrot.”

“We need to maintain consumer confidence,” says Pennsylvania producer Logan Bower. “They’re concerned with how animals
are raised.”
Bower, who markets his milk through Land O’Lakes, says the cooperative hasn’t required members to participate in an animal well-being program.

“The trigger point will be when a buyer, such as McDonald’s, Wal-Mart or Starbucks, comes to Land O’Lakes and says, ‘We won’t buy from you unless you can prove your members’ animals were treated humanely,’ and then Land O’Lakes tells me I have to be involved,” Bower says. “We have not reached that point.”

California Dairies Inc., the processing and marketing cooperative that handles 42% of the Golden State’s milk supply, is under pressure to adopt and implement a formalized animal welfare program for its members.

“CDI has been getting questions from buyers,” says Eric Erba, the co-op’s vice president of government relations. “They want us to describe our animal welfare program, how many producers are participating, whether it’s voluntary or includes third-party verification.”

While CDI supports the idea of a national animal welfare program, Erba says that will take time. And he’s not sure CDI can wait much longer to respond to buyers’ concerns.

“As a milk marketing cooperative, we’re caught in the middle,” Erba says. “We want to satisfy our buyers, but we don’t want to tell producers how to run their businesses. We need a program that’s formal and credible enough to be acceptable to our buyers but not so onerous that it’s too difficult or costly for producers to get evaluated or certified.”

Like Erba, Mayer and Bledsoe, Pennsylvania’s Bower believes the industry’s animal well-being programs, whether national or regional, should fall under one umbrella with corresponding standards and guidelines. “That’s what the Wal-Marts, the Krogers, the McDonald’s are looking for,” Bower says.

The goal of the new FARM program is just that, says Chris Galen, NMPF’s senior vice president of communications.

“FARM [Farmers Assuring Responsible Management] doesn’t take over existing animal welfare programs,” Galen says. “But a patchwork quilt of standards is not going to cut it in an age when products move nationally and internationally through a handful of chains. The whole idea is to assure consumers and the entire marketing chain that the conditions under which milk is produced are on the up-and-up. We are providing national standards that everyone can benchmark against.”

“With education and time, we’ll come together [with a national animal welfare program],” says Wisconsin’s Mayer. “For producers, it’s important to make sure our programs are all legitimate, so customers up the chain can see real programs out there.”

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