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Heads, Not Tails

July 1, 2012

The recently-passed Senate Farm Bill contained a variety of farm-related items, much of which is great news for dairy farmers.

But it also came very close to including something that, while not at first glance affecting dairy farmers, those of us in the dairy business need to take note of. I’m referring to the amendment, drafted by Sen. Diane Feinstein of California, to legislate the housing specifications for egg-laying hens.

This was the legislative version of the formal agreement between the United Egg Producers (UEP), and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). In an effort to end the state-by-state war of the ballot box over cage system for hens, the UEP decided it would rather negotiate an agreement with the animal rights community, than continue duking it out across the country.

While Sen. Feinstein’s measure was not included as part of the final version of the Farm Bill, it had momentum until nearly every farm and ranch group united to oppose it. And the takeaway lesson from this outcome is that similar battles will continue to be fought, either at the federal or the state levels – or both – where livestock issues are concerned…unless we figure out a way to get ahead of these issues.

One way we have been proactive and progressive is in the continued expansion of our National Dairy FARM program. Now in its third year, we continue to add to the number of farms enrolled in it. There remains a clear and compelling need to have a national, guideline-based, independently-verifiable dairy animal care program in place, one that is acceptable to farmers and retailers alike. Because if farmers don’t drive this process, the supermarkets and foodservice community will come up with their own programs, not all of which will take science and years of dairy experience into account.

It’s also important that the FARM program reflect the best-available evidence concerning the optimal care practices for dairy cattle and calves. That’s the impetus behind NMPF’s consideration of altering somewhat the program’s position on tail docking. Currently, the FARM program does not recommend tail docking.

As evidence continues to mount that the practice of tail docking benefits neither cows, their milk, nor workers, there is a fading rationale for allowing the practice to continue. When we talk about using sound science to base our policy decisions, here is an example of where the science does not create a case for the continued routine use of tail docking.

For this reason, NMPF is considering joining the leading veterinary organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP), in taking a stance of opposition to tail docking (as opposed to just “not recommending” it).

There are strong feelings about such a change, but as I stated a moment ago, once emotions are set aside, the intellectual and scientific basis for the practice just doesn’t stand.

Incorporating a change of position into the care standards of the FARM program does two things: first, it helps us offer ongoing education about better ways of ensuring the comfort and cleanliness of both cows and farm workers, such as switch trimming. The on-farm evaluation offers an opportunity to provide information to a farmer on practical alternatives to tail docking.

And it’s worth remembering that a criterion opposing tail docking in the FARM program does not mean those who haven’t ended the practice will be rejected. The program is not pass-fail on any one such point, allows for a process of continuous learning and improvement.

The second thing this does is to remove the argument from the political table, and avoid public battles over a legislative approach to eliminating tail docking. Already, the biggest dairy state, California, has banned the practice. Other states may soon be in the same boat.

Legislative efforts affecting poultry, pigs and cattle are certain to continue. And when industries are divided – as the egg industry has been with enlarged colony housing, and as the swine sector is with gestation stalls – our opponents can use tactics of divide and conquer to achieve their goals, and fragment the farming community.

Rather than give the animal rights community a tool with which to beat on dairy farmers, it’s more prudent to be proactive, and use our heads to handle this ourselves.