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Livestock Care Conference focuses on turning ideas and innovations into action

Posted: March 30, 2014

Livestock producers and industry leaders are on the right track in shepherding agriculture through an important period of transition, innovation and heightened management expectations in a new world of farm animal care.

This was reinforced by a series of speakers tackling the hot topics and developments at the Livestock Care Conference, March 26-27, 2014 in Edmonton, Alta. The annual conference was hosted by Alberta Farm Animal Care (AFAC) in partnership with the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association (ABVMA).

Over 180 participants attended, including everyone from industry leaders and individual producers to researchers, industry, students, government and other stakeholders with an interest in farm animal care.

Developments in farm animal care have never been higher profile or more important to success in today's livestock sector. Producers and industry have made strong progress with new Codes of Practice, assessment approaches and science and leadership driven initiatives. However, keeping 'reality' in perspective is essential when addressing the very real issues surrounding animal welfare and the animal rights movement, says Dr. Tim Blackwell, lead veterinarian in disease prevention with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

"The vast majority of stockpeople are professionals who are champions of farm animal care," say Blackwell. "But when issues arise we need to take ownership and fix them. This includes how we respond to challenges from activist organizations such as the PETAs of the world. We might be surprised at the response if we thank them for bringing issues to our attention, own up to our mistakes and fix our mistakes."

It's an approach that has merit, says Kay Johnson-Smith of the Animal Agriculture Alliance. "Animal rights activists don't want the conflict to go away because that would mean losing their funding base and losing press coverage. They live by creating and exploiting conflict. Ultimately their goal is to put a wedge between you and the typical consumer."

Taking ownership is also critical when it comes to communicating, emphasized several speakers. A leading recent Alberta example is the FarmOn initiative, which among other things has developed a social networking community for farmers to tell the story of agriculture in a real and authentic way to consumers and society.

Consumer research indicates the demand for food is changing, says Michael von Massow, a professor in the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph. "The good news is consumers think we're doing a good job with animal welfare. The bad news is their awareness of what we're doing is low. There's a temptation to say 'if it ain't broke don't fix it.' But critics of agriculture are making statements and driving the consumer perceptions. It's important we get out there and tell our story."

Science is just part of the conversation, says von Massow. "Science can tell us what we can't do. It can't tell us what we should do. While science can inform the process, it can't be the only thing."

Producers are the frontline of building trust, says Frank Novak of Sunhaven Farms. "Producers need to take the stage and become champions. We cannot hide in the background. We need to be managers of our own destiny."

Cherie Copithorne-Barnes of CL Ranches west of Calgary agrees. "Farm animal care is an important part of the quality of our product and our image with the public," she says. "It's something we do every day and we need to be spreading awareness of that."

Additional conference components included a major "Industry Innovation Showcase" session featuring several case study examples, as well as key sessions focused on students and social media opportunities. Watch for more conference highlights and the LCC Blog available through the AFAC website at www.afac.ab.ca.