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A farm-built code for animal care

This family believes their responsibility starts on their farm

Posted: December 11, 2014

Blaine McLeod knows about the rising role of farm animal care these days. The veteran Caronport, Sask. dairyman has been a long-time player in industry affairs including building policy and programs to meet animal welfare issues.

You'll have no argument on the importance of animal welfare from his sons and now business partners, Michael and Mark. They have been exposed to, and buy into, the latest thinking on farm animal care as part of their education.

They all understand that animal care codes and assessment models are needed on an industry-wide basis. But they also agree that at the end of the day, what happens in farm animal care starts on the farm. And that's an individual producer responsibility.

It's why the McLeods have developed specific thoughts on what is needed to meet both their production needs and the rising expectations of a more food-focused world.

Here are five cornerstone examples that demonstrate this thinking in action.

Build a master plan for cull cows. Perhaps the biggest issue in dairy production is how cull cows are handled. The McLeods have simple philosophy and clear plan. "Care for your cows after they are done looking after you. Build a master plan to accomplish this."

Herd turnover rate for the McLeods' 300 milking cows is about 25 percent. Animals are culled for health or for declining production reasons such as reduced milking levels, failure to rebreed or increasing age."

The McLeods used to have a slaughter facility half an hour away. That made things simpler. No longer. Most culled animals now will travel several hours to reach their destination, so extra care must be taken.

Today, every animal destined for sale is evaluated individually to ensure they are healthy enough to travel. For example, is there a chance the animal may be refused at the destination or the carcass condemned? If there is any chance of a problem, the McLeods don't allow the animal to leave the farm.

Some cows are shipped directly from the milking line as they near end of lactation. Some will be pulled off the milk line and put in the "fat pen" which holds animals destined for the beef market. Some cows are sold to beef producers as nurse cows, a busy market recently.

Animals that are lame or have feet and leg problems are taken off concrete and given time to recover.

Heavy milking cows are milked down. "We'll foster a couple of bull calves on a cow until she drops in milk production," says Michael. "Cows that develop chronic mastitis problems that can't be solved economically will also be culled and may have calves fostered onto them."

Don't ship a problem. Farmers know if an animal is healthy enough to be shipped, says Blaine. "If not, do the right thing and euthanize the animal on the farm."

There are clear industry guidelines established for euthanasia, he says. "It's not a job we like to do, but we realize it's clearly our responsibility. We compost animals that are euthanized and we are getting better at managing this process."

Keep current on options for cattle comfort. Another important part of animal care is having a commitment to keep up to date on new options for improvement. This approach led to the McLeods introducing new water beds to the farm in recent years, which have significantly improved animal comfort.

Stand up for yourself, build your industry. New developments in animal care are also often a balancing act for producers. While working on continual improvement is a critical part of good management today, producers also need to stand up for themselves in the process, say the McLeods.

"I hope we do a good job as an industry of dealing with society on these management issues," says Blaine. "But at the same time, at the end of the day I hope the expectations we have coming back can accommodate options that are practical, affordable and sustainable for the industry.

"What I don't want to see in these conversations around animal care is unreasonable expectations placed on dairy farmers that we are just not able to meet. I think we provide dignity to our animals but some of the things these groups are shooting for show they really don't want us doing anything other than having cattle on pasture. That's not realistic so you have to push back a little bit.

"The last thing we want to do is saddle those that come behind us with meaningless initiatives and regulations that just become burdensome."

Tell your story. Being open and making the effort to explain industry approaches is important and needs to be done and in a way that respects societal concerns, says Blaine.

"There's been a bit of an attitude among some farmers of resisting higher scrutiny and observation of farms," he says. "I think farmers need to get past that and be able to get the point where they say 'I'm an open door and an open book'. There may be things I do on my farm that you don't understand, but I can help you understand them."

Related article: A master plan for cull cows


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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