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Creating a strong new culture of livestock welfare

Nurturing a positive and proactive mindset is critical for industry success as assessments and audits play an increasing role in the next generation of farm animal care, says Dr. James Reynolds

Posted: April 5, 2013


Dr. James Reynolds

A new world of higher scrutiny and expectations has emerged for farm animal welfare but livestock producers and their industries can tackle the challenge by aligning on the right side of the issue and embracing a renewed 'culture of care,' says leading livestock welfare expert Dr. James Reynolds of the College of Veterinary Medicine, Western University in Ponoma, California.

"There's a lot of argument, worry and fear around the discussion of farm animal welfare that I'd like to take out," says Reynolds, speaking to producers and a cross-section of industry stakeholders at the 2013 Livestock Care Conference in Calgary. "When we're challenged on how we do things, there's a tendency to resist and give a litany of reasons why we can't change. But anyone can change and anyone can get better."

Any successful industry or business requires a constant evolution based on new knowledge and changing consumer preferences, he says. Livestock production is no different and animal welfare is part of the business that should be expected to continually advance.

"We don't need to be perfect; we don't need to move from zero to light speed," says Reynolds, a veterinarian and professor of large animal medicine and welfare. "But we should be planning ahead and taking steps to evolve. Animal welfare as a concept is really not a lot different than animal health. It's something we all want to support and keep improving. We should expect change and be part of leading it in a way that strikes a good balance between welfare and production needs."

Shifting from defense to positive change

The often polarizing and heated debate around specific welfare flash points can make the issue appear out-sized and daunting. But farm animal welfare is actually a relatively simple, age-old concept that producers can manage very well with the right mindset, he says.

"One of the most important things is to create a welfare culture on farms," says Reynolds, who spent many years in private practice in the beef and dairy industries. "In my experience, if the owner or management of a livestock operation wants the animals to be taken care of well, they will be taken care of well. If that is not the priority then that doesn't happen as much and people make mistakes. It's often as simple as that."

There's a lot of noise and shifting rhetoric on the welfare front, but if producers simply continue to make welfare a top priority, commit to a process of change at a reasonable pace and apply common sense, they can not only weather the storm but ramp up their long-term business outlook and come out stronger, he says. "What we can't afford to do is dismiss the issue. We need to be open minded and continually refine and renew what we're doing. Animal welfare is a process and a consensus of opinion. It's a matter of keeping up as consumer expectations change and societal ethics change."

Open-minded, proactive stance critical

Despite the practical and economic challenges that come with any change, having this type of positive and proactive mindset on animal welfare has arguably never been more important for livestock producers and their industries to embrace, he says.

The profile of farm animal welfare has risen dramatically and is increasingly a major part of the sustainability and consumer trend conversations at different levels of the food industry domestically and internationally.

Sectors that poorly manage the increased scrutiny or are perceived as falling behind today's mindset and expectations face a greater threat of market loss or imposed regulations, says Reynolds. At the same time, those perceived as progressive on animal welfare enjoy greater 'social license' to operate with more freedom and self-direction. There is also fast-building market opportunity and brand-building potential for welfare-friendly products.

"In a market system, the real driver of change is through the consumer," says Reynolds. "Livestock industries have a license to produce. Society gives the license and it comes with conditions. The challenge is to continually foster understanding and strengthen that relationship."

Communicating well on the issue is essential, he says. Equally important is being transparent and, increasingly, being willing to 'prove' rather than just talk a commitment to good welfare.

Move to 'proving' good welfare

One of the biggest game-changers emerging out of today's rising expectations is a strong and fast-expanding movement toward the development and implementation of welfare assessment and audit approaches at all levels of the supply chain, he says. This includes a growing number of high profile examples at various stages of development and use among different sectors, companies and operations in Canada and the U.S.

"It's a new era and these approaches are becoming more commonplace," says Reynolds. "Some are a response to criticism of husbandry. Industry and retailers set up programs to assure consumers that animals have good welfare. But some are driven by the management desires of the companies or farms themselves to have the best welfare possible for the animals. The farm or industry intends to provide good welfare and has third-party assessments or audits to ensure the programs are working or to prove to others in the supply chain, and ultimately to consumers, that their animals have good welfare."

Whether this trend is embraced or feared depends on individual perspectives, says Reynolds. But there's no doubt it's where the world is headed and those who manage it positively rather than fight it are best positioned to succeed.

"It's the new frontier and we need to get used to it and plan to operate within it," says Reynolds. "It's not about extremes. It's about continually balancing our use and treatment of animals with society's expectations and our ability to improve. If we think ahead and plan ahead, we can do that while maintaining successful farm businesses and successful livestock industries."

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.



Rise of assessment and audit programs

The next frontier in proving good welfare is fast approaching, with several key approaches in use or taking shape in the U.S. and Canada

There is wide variation in the type, depth and sophistication of the assessment and audit models out there today, says Dr. James Reynolds of the College of Veterinary Medicine, Western University in Ponoma, California.

One of the most commonly cited reference points underlying the various approaches is the "five freedoms" concept that farm animals should have freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.

At a broad level, approaches to assessments or audits typically focus on one or more of three types of factors. These include physical attributes such as physiology or production measures; natural environment factors such as the ability of animals to express 'normal' behaviours; or animal feelings such as how the animal experiences pleasant or unpleasant situations.

The terms assessment and audit are sometimes used interchangeably but typically assessments are more associated with general monitoring and improvement while audits have a stronger 'test' element aimed at determining compliance with particular standards or certification programs.

List of examples growing

Relevant to the U.S. dairy industry alone, there are a number of high profile assessment or audit programs in place, including the American Humane Certified program of the American Humane Association, the National Dairy FARM Program and regional programs such as the New York State Cattle Health Assurance Program.

There are also a steadily growing number of companies and organizations offering animal welfare assessment and audit services as well as certification programs across different livestock species. One key example is Validus, a program that provides an assessment phase followed by an audit phase. Another is the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO), which certifies on-farm welfare auditing programs and certifies the qualifications and training of auditors. Reynolds was a founding board member of PAACO.

In Canada, a major focus of activity at a national level is the Animal Care Assessment Model process that has been coordinated through the National Farm Animal Care Council. The dairy sector is the first to develop a pilot assessment program using this model framework while other sectors are watching closely and considering a similar approach.

Real results take real planning and investment

"For industry standards to be successful, it must be clear that the welfare and interests of the animals have appropriate weight relative to the humane use of the animals," says Reynolds. "Producers must also believe the standards are established and administered fairly. And, perhaps most important, consumers must have confidence that the standards are taken seriously and that livestock producers will follow the recommended practices."

It's essential to not get too far behind consumer expectations, he says. That takes planning and, yes, investment too at the producer level. "The question is: Are you going to be in the livestock business in the next five years or 10 years? If so, you may need to do some things differently because you've got to be positioned for the next version of expectations. You may need to set aside some of your working capital to be ready to make changes. But it's a necessary part of doing business that strengthens and benefits you in the long run."


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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