Animal Welfare was the topic of the Dr. O.M. Radostits Seminar during the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners 20th Annual Conference in Saskatoon, January 13-15. Speakers provided insight into animal welfare from the perspective of sustainable agriculture systems, accountability as a driver of progress, responsible supply-chain management, pain control and public relations. Welfare is cloaked in many issues and challenges within the vista of a changing world and today’s societal norms that frequently put consumers at odds with traditional agriculture.
The efficiency of modern communication ensures that the consequences of unacceptable practices are broadcast to audiences worldwide. Mishandling of downer cows at Hallmark Westland, sheep on an Australian ship dying in large numbers enroute to Saudi Arabia or the inhumane slaughter of swine in South Korea as part of foot and mouth disease control all become international media topics within hours of being reported. In response to these events, consumers an ocean away often suspend buying animal products from the countries involved. Retailers also respond, often with indelible effects on production standards.
A McDonald’s decree can change how hens are housed and eggs are produced or act as a catalyst to eliminate gestation crates as a production norm in the manufacture of bacon. Reports of rainforest destruction in beef production, collateral mortality of dolphins in tuna nets and subsistent payments to coffee producers have all induced permanent change in the buying habits of consumers.
Concepts about quality have also changed. Food safety is paramount. Unsafe food is poor-quality food. Food that compromises ethical standards of production for any reason may be considered poor quality, an opinion applied — sometimes subjectively — over things like environmental impact, disruption of rural communities, genetic modification and contorted views on animal welfare. Consumers now drive legislation and retail company codes of practice for animal production.
To take account of the ethics of production methods, products must be traceable. If food can be traced it is less likely it will be adulterated, of poor quality or unsafe. If animals can be traced, the source of animal disease is more likely to be found or causes of poor welfare more efficiently located. Legislation and industry initiatives ensuring traceability are important.
In Dr. Broom’s view agriculture systems are unsustainable if any of the following are compromised:
Product quality and safety.
The natural environment.
anagement of water resources and effluents. E
fficient use of food resources, including use of grazers to harvest nutrients on marginal lands.
Dr. Temple Grandin expressed disappointment in the relapse rate of bad livestock handling practices in agriculture enterprises. She constantly finds herself going back to “re-fix” things. Her solution: rigid outcome-based auditing systems where enterprises develop methods of measuring, detecting and correcting animal-handling issues. Internal and third-party auditing systems must be simple and based on variables people actually see and understand, things like body condition scores, lameness, dirty animals, injuries, cancer eyes and abnormal behaviour.
Grandin suggests that people actually “get in the chute and take a look.” Why is the chain dangling? Is the floor slippery? What do animals hear and see? Is the blazing sun preventing loading? Would loading at a different time of the day be better? Are shadows and sunbeams observed the way animals see them? Can we create natural light opportunities to get rid of black holes? Are chute systems curved to facilitate the instinct to turn back? Are human and mechanical noises excessive? Are animals fearful? Are crowed pens only half full and used effectively to move several animals at a time into the alley? Is biological overload like that seen with repartitioning agents or heat stress an issue? Are dogs and electric prods away from processing areas? Do animals walk out of the chute rather than run? Are people visible within the flight zone?
Do we think visually? To an animal, a mounted cowboy is perceived totally different than one on foot. A shallow floor drain in an alley becomes a barrier.
Grandin says about 20 per cent of people are good livestock practitioners, 10 per cent should never be allowed around animals and the other 60 per cent keep slipping back into bad practices if not continually audited and corrected. When people are held accountable for losses, problems get fixed. Maintaining high standards of animal handling requires continuous measurement. Without it, the bad becomes normal.
A good auditing system cannot be vague. Standards must be clearly written and not subject to different interpretations. Scoring depends on directly observable things that are outcomes of bad practices such as percentage of animals prodded with an electric prod, number of animals falling or the number vocalizing. Avoid descriptors like adequate, properly or sufficient.
Dr. Mike Siemens of Cargill talked about animal rights groups and their relentless battle to reshape U.S. agriculture through mixed ballot initiatives, legislation, protests, undercover videos and negotiation. They have everyone’s attention now and the animal agriculture industry has been slow to respond. There is the realization that old tactics no longer work. Fragmentation of the industry hasn’t helped.
It is essential for producers and producer groups to be united and proactive. Industry must take the lead developing key messages on animal welfare for the media, messages that are clear, convincing and accurate. Most importantly, everyone in the supply chain must learn how to interact with today’s mainstream audiences.
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