Fighting the Right Fight

November 30,2015
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Helping dairy farmers confront the shifting tide of public opinion on animal care practices is one of the defining challenges faced by NMPF in the 21st century.  The roster of standard operating procedures and recommended practices on dairy farms is evolving, which is really nothing new.  What is new is that this evolution is being driven increasingly by both measurable animal welfare outcomes and by societal pressures about what is acceptable, as expressed by the clear and unequivocal expectations of our customers. 

That’s why the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program needs to help manage and direct these mounting pressures so that dairy farmers are not constantly whipsawed by demands from the marketplace. Having in place an industry-led, science-based animal care program in the form of FARM – employed now by more than 90% of the milk supply in the nation – gives us an advantage that most of the other livestock species groups don’t have. 

The consequences of not acting prudently and proactively, but only reactively and defensively, can be seen on an almost daily basis elsewhere in animal agriculture. In the egg industry, the shift to cage-free housing has come rapidly, even in states where there is no legislative mandate.  Just last month, Taco Bell joined other fast food restaurants including McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Panera Bread in switching to cage-free. Food marketers across the country are demanding cage-free housing even if lawmakers are not.  As a result, essentially all the new hen housing being constructed focuses on open colonies, not cages. 

The same is increasingly true in pork production:  Demands for gestation stall-free farrowing operations are leading to big changes in hog housing, as more and more food companies make such a system the cost of serving the market.

Where dairy farming is concerned, NMPF’s advocacy approach has been clear:  Defend those practices that are defensible, critique those that are not, and exercise the wisdom and discretion to differentiate between the two.  This approach led to the decision earlier this fall to accelerate the phase-out requirement for tail docking on dairy farms enrolled in the FARM program.  NMPF’s Board of Directors voted in late October to move up the deadline to end tail docking to January 2017, after which it will no longer be an acceptable practice.

This decision was certainly not without controversy, but it also was not a game-changer.  The NMPF Board had actually decided three years ago to end tail docking for dairies in the FARM program; this resolution merely changes the timing of when it is to be phased out. October’s vote to hasten the demise of tail docking was driven by the same factors that led to the initial decision in 2012: Veterinary science does not support the practice, and neither does consumer expectation.

When leading veterinary groups condemn routine tail docking, and no research exists to justify its practice from a milk quality or animal health standpoint, it becomes impossible to promote as credible a program that allows docking to continue.  Unlike dehorning and disbudding, which is used by virtually all dairy farmers as an obvious benefit to animal and worker safety, tail docking has not been universally utilized. In fact, FARM Program data indicates that less than 23% of the U.S. herds have docked tails. Thus, the practice becomes harder to defend as essential to milk production – especially since switch trimming exists as a suitable alternative.

Whether in state ballot initiatives, state legislatures, or increasingly, in company boardrooms and family households, the focus on livestock practices is going to continue. While much of the initial focus on these issues is driven by the animal rights crowd, it is naïve to assume that concerns about certain practices begin and end with vegan activists.  So we must make intelligent choices about which issues are going to be battlegrounds.  When companies within a supply chain are divided – as the egg industry has been with confinement cages, and as the swine sector is with gestation stalls – our opponents can use the tactics of divide and conquer to achieve their goals, and fragment the farming community.

We need to unite around preserving important animal husbandry tools for our herds, such as disbudding, or the therapeutic use of antibiotics, or the use of quality feed ingredients that may have a genetically modified trait.  Fighting to hold onto practices that aren’t credible or defensible to our consumers will only undermine the rationale and support for our national, science-based, independently verifiable dairy animal care FARM program.  It would lead to a confusing hash of marketer- or state-directed demands that only add costs and exacerbate the challenges facing farmers.  That’s an outcome we must fight to avoid.