Meristem Land and Science: Driving Progress in Sustainability


Year of ideas 2013

Taking farm animal care management to a new level

Posted: December 12, 2013

It was a year of "transformative" change. And the fuel was ideas - from producers, their industries and the broad spectrum of the farm animal care community.

Farm animal welfare as an area of management focus grabbed attention like never before. New Codes of Practice, new assessment models, and a range of other major developments continued to shift the landscape. Consumer and retailer trends forged new pathways bringing both higher pressures and expanded opportunities. New research and fresh ways of thinking added energetic new elements and solutions to the mix.

Tough obstacles and challenging economics persisted on a number of fronts. But at the same time more producers found ways to apply new knowledge to simultaneously raise the bar on both animal care and production advantages.

Here's a look back at 10 of the key concepts, among many, that drove progress in 2013, from the pages of NewStream Farm Animal Care (presented in no particular order):

Janet Riley of AMI

10. Championing transparency. In an era where "trust me doesn't cut it anymore," some of the most innovative and creative initiatives coming from animal agriculture on the welfare file represent unique ways of showing and telling about production approaches to the public. A top example is the 'Glass Walls' project of the American Meat Institute (AMI).

"It became clear to me that we needed something to be able to show people, to say very clearly 'This is how it really happens,'" says Janet Riley of AMI. "People are very susceptible to some of the bad news made by activists is that they really don't have anything to evaluate it against. They haven't been in plants and they don't have an exposure to agriculture today. So we needed to give them that ability to think critically."

Livestock emergency handling equipment trailer

9. Fighting the margin of error. When something goes wrong, are we prepared? Agriculture is taking big steps to close the gaps and one of the leading areas of progress is the industry effort to develop improved networks of resources to deliver timely, on-the-ground assistance. Two Alberta examples that are getting the job done, championed by Alberta Farm Animal Care and partners, are a new, province-wide fleet of livestock emergency handling equipment trailers and a new 'vet team' outreach approach that is rapidly gaining traction.

The latter, the Animal Welfare Veterinary Emergency Response Team (AWVERT) initiative, is based on the concept of having a network of veterinarians, spanning the province, who can respond to a range of animal welfare situations and deliver services of value to several different agencies in a coordinated fashion, says Darryl Dalton, Registrar of Alberta Veterinary Medical Association. ""We see this as a valuable service for society and we're encouraged that we will achieve the right mix of support and the coordination of agencies within Alberta. We would also encourage other provinces to take up this thought and share ideas with us. We would love to see this type of initiative take hold across the country."

Deane Collinson of Calgary Co-op

8. Retailers and the welfare 'tipping point.' There's no question a threshold has been crossed and the retail sector is not shying away from taking action on a number of fronts related to livestock welfare expectations. Tim Hortons has stepped to the forefront in setting targets for farm animal care innovations among its suppliers. So too has Sobeys, McDonald's and a host of others.

Calgary Co-op made headlines at a more local level and has an important perspective. "We're trying to learn more about it, to consult with producer groups and animal welfare experts, to better understand the issue," says CEO Deane Collinson. "One thing we know for certain is that it's not going away. We need to work together as an industry to figure our way through this."

Ed Pajor, University of Calgary

7. Research-driven leadership. Clearly research is one of the most powerful tools Canada has for addressing farm animal care challenges and finding solutions that work for industry. The country is fortunate to have some of the world's top animal welfare scientists who are leading the charge. Innovations in weaning and pain management are two examples among many where Canada is driving progress and championing new thinking.

Timely industry support for adopting new solutions created through research progress is critical, says Dr. Ed Pajor of the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. "Ultimately, this is the approach we need for animal agriculture to be able to manage welfare issues more on its own terms rather than having changes imposed by others."

Catherine Scovil, Canadian Pork Council

6. Forging a new model for cost sharing. Who pays? This is arguably the toughest logistical question around welfare changes that involve major infrastructure change. The pressure for sow housing changes in the new Pig Code was a high profile example. "The issue of cost sharing can be a sore spot for the industry," says Catherine Scovil, Associate Executive Director, Canadian Pork Council. "We are talking to retailers and food service but so far no one is really coming to the plate to say 'our consumers want this and we will pay for it'. If that was the case, converting to new systems would be easier as incentives would be there. But that's not what we're hearing. We need to address this because forced conversions will have farmers exit the industry and that is not the objective of the Code. It's not in anyone's interests to close facilities in Canada and fill the gap with imported product that doesn't have our standards, including welfare standards."

5. Merging the sustainability files. There are so many parallels between different sustainability issues that agriculture is facing that it just makes sense to look for ways to consolidate approaches. The trends certainly indicate that's where things are headed. A leading example is The ProAction initiative of the dairy sector — farm animal care is a key part of the mix in this bold new program that many in in agriculture are watching closely as a model for other livestock industries.

"This is about integrating on-farm programs for a new generation, in a way that is efficient, works well for producers and addresses societal expectations," says Wally Smith, Dairy Farmers of Canada president. "We believe we need to be proactive in addressing changing needs and responding to consumers' thirst for knowledge about their food. We also believe that we, the farmers, should design the program in a way that makes sense for farmers. The board and our members see the opportunity to streamline and coordinate various best management practices under one umbrella."

4. Environment factor: Accelerating the learning curve. Many involved with producer associations believe the experience of agriculture in managing the environment file, in particular, has helped to pave the way for faster and better management of the welfare file. "To me, environment was the issue that broke the ground on what we now talk about more broadly as sustainability," says Alberta Beef Producers past-chairman Doug Sawyer. "With environment, we went through the gamut of have our head in the sand, then get mad and fight it, then acceptance and then realizing this isn't as bad we thought, and then, how do we manage it.

"With welfare we're a lot quicker to figure out we can manage this and that's what we need to focus on. Because of that we have been able to move much quicker in terms of the industry uptake. The more we can continue to learn from our experience with the environment to stay ahead of the livestock welfare issue, the better off we'll be." This was one of several factors Sawyer had on his 'watch list' for 2013.

3. New era of teamwork and partnerships. Farm animal care discussion and decision making, particularly in Canada, has taken on a clear tone of working together among diverse interest groups. Progress with the Codes of Practice is a leading example.

The U.S. landscape remains more polarizing and combative, yet even there signs of compromise, through often controversial, appear on the increase. A high profile example is the 'strange bedfellow' partnership of United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States two bitter adversaries that found common ground in the interest of creating a new, sustainable future for the U.S. egg business.

Charlie Arnot, Center for Food Integrity

2. Social license. The success of industry depends greatly on the relationship with the public. Do people trust the food system? Do they think livestock are well cared for? According to Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, the level of trust agriculture has directly relates to its "social license" or ability to operate freely without the burdens of heavy external control through regulation, legislation or market requirements.

The need to protect and strengthen social license is what is driving much of the increased focus and activity in farm animal care, says Arnot. "When you have trust, you have more support and more freedom to operate. That has never been more important for livestock industries than it is today."

Photo credit: Calgary Stampede

1. Canada taking charge. How much social license will livestock producers and their industries have in the years to come? Judging by the sharp increase in discussion and activity on farm animal care in 2013, as well as the largely cooperative and progressive approaches Canada has adopted, there are many signs of encouragement that this country is on the right track. At NewStream Farm Animal Care, we look forward to continuing to help cover and keep you up to date on much of the latest thinking, ideas and developments, in the New Year ahead.

Your turn. What ideas or concepts stood out for you in 2013? What will drive progress in 2014?
We welcome your feedback.

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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