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Bear pit: Targeting the big issues in farm animal care

Open-format wrap-up session at Livestock Care Conference yields frank discussion and ideas on future direction

Posted: April 5, 2013


Dr. Clover Bench, University of Alberta

What are the lessons for producers and industry in the developments we see in livestock welfare today? What are the opportunities and benefits? What is the right direction for Canada's livestock industries to build a successful future?

These questions and more were front and centre at the 2013 Livestock Care Conference during an open-format "bear pit" session on the big issues and what's needed for a new generation of farm animal care progress. The bear pit was a wrap-up session designed to get input from conference participants after they had heard a series of presentations from featured speakers.

Conference host Alberta Farm Animal Care is built on collaborative leadership and directional approach among a range of livestock industry organizations and this was an important input session from all stakeholders.

Dr. Clover Bench of the University of Alberta moderated the interactive discussion, which touched on everything from where the pressure points are for producers to how different livestock sectors can best work together and capture benefits.

The range of perspectives and topics highlighted provided a glimpse inside the mindset of a livestock sector that is increasingly embracing change and emerging as a leader in farm animal care progress.

"One of the things I've learned as a teacher in agriculture is that there are lots of varying viewpoints within agriculture," says Bench. "That is a real strength when we have the opportunity to come together to share and learn from one another. That's what this session is really all about."

Six keys for an evolving industry

Here is a sampling of six key 'take-home' thoughts that emerged from the session.

1. 'Trust me' doesn't cut it anymore. Newly updated standards and recommended best practices for the care and handling of farm animals, such as those found in the updated Codes of Practice, are a critical foundation for Canada's livestock industries. To truly do the job and meet expectations, another step is needed – the assessment and audit approaches that are becoming more commonplace among the various livestock sectors.

2. Industry-led progress is shaping the future. Livestock producers and their industries in Canada are by and large on the right track with the progress they are making. Codes, assessments and a variety of species specific programs are helping industries develop credible, sustainable models for supporting and proving good welfare practices while at the same time building a culture of continual improvement.

3. We need to keep engaged at the global level. Influential global bodies such as the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) are delving more and more into leading the discussion and agenda on where farm animal welfare is headed. Canada needs to continue to be involved and monitor these developments closely, to make sure national approaches are properly aligned and nothing unexpected comes out to derail Canada's progress.

4. We need to keep pulling in the same direction. The proliferation of species and commodity specific programs and initiatives related to welfare is becoming an alphabet soup of acronyms. But the bottom line is all of these programs are essentially moving in the same direction and that's a huge positive for Canada as a whole. No one sector is being left behind or going off course. Efforts to streamline and coordinate progress among the sectors are helping Canada lead and speak with a united voice, and this also has practical advantages. Umbrella approaches such as the Codes and the national Animal Care Assessment Model under development make it easier for Canada to establish a clear brand and credibility for welfare approaches and to deal with many different customers looking for those assurances.

5. Continual education and communication is critical. Change is a constant and Canada's livestock industries need to continue to focus on building and refining solid frameworks that support continual improvement. Codes and assessments, while building trust with consumers and improving the 'social license' of livestock industries, also play a hugely beneficial role in supporting education, awareness and training. The advantages extend beyond upholding high animal welfare standards to supporting overall improvements in farm management, productivity and industry success.

The importance of strong communications on livestock welfare encompasses everything from communications within and among associations to the use of a variety of communications channels and tools. An often repeated viewpoint was that a major focus needs to be providing information to the individual producers on the front line – to help them understand and prepare what's coming and also to support good decision-making. One specific information channel highlighted at the conference was the NewStream Farm Animal Care service, which is supported in part through the Information Leadership Initiative administered by Alberta Farm Animal Care.

6. Barriers can be broken down. There was a strong feeling of consensus in the room that livestock industries must continue to establish and confirm good welfare practices at all levels of the value chain. Always looking for ways to get better and overcome challenges is the mindset that will serve Canadian animal agriculture well and help it build a strong future. Many noted that while there are clear obstacles to break down, such as the practical and economic concerns around some proposed changes, there are also some hurdles that are more perceived barriers than real ones. Top of the list is fear of change.

"Part of the culture we need to cultivate is that we are never satisfied," says Bench. "We need to be open to change and see it as a positive. We have seen many examples and viewpoints at this conference of how different people and organizations in our industry are embracing change and in doing so becoming the leaders who will help us succeed. That, to me, is a very strong signal that we are moving in the right direction."

The 2013 Livestock Care Conference was hosted by Alberta Farm Animal Care (AFAC) in partnership with the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association. For more information and links to additional reports on speaker presentations, visit the conference website at lcc.afac.ab.ca.


Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.


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