Animal Care on Large Farms - Oxymoron?
Given that the vast majority of us are entrusting someone else to grow/raise our food, it's common to want to know who is producing it and what methods are used to ensure it is being done in a manner that meets our preferences. Based on an inquiry from http://www.fooddialogues.com/, we sought out the help of Dr. Dan Thomson, Kansas State University, and Dr. Peter Davies, University of Minnesota, to better understand how farmers care for their animals. In a nutshell, we learned that what matters most isn't the size of the farm, but the management practices that farmers use, to ensure good animal care.
Question: What are large and small farm operators doing to make sure animals are being well-cared for?
Dan Thomson, PhD, DVM – Assistant Dean of Outreach and Jones Professor of Production Medicine, Kansas State University
"Animal welfare is something that we focus on in agriculture every day, and I believe farmers and ranchers have always cared about the well-being of their animals at a very high level. Whether it is nutrition, preventative medicine, shelter – each is a variable that we pay close attention to, to ensure the health and well-being of the animals we’re raising for food.
"I work a lot with cattle, and some examples for that industry include:
- "Reduced caesarian section births. When I ask practitioners how many C-sections they were doing on an annual basis when they first graduated from veterinary school 20 years ago, the response is typically 600-700 a year. When I ask them how many they’re performing annually, on average now, most are doing less than 10. This is because the industry has done great work with genetic selection, management selection, closely monitoring the animals, etc. This type of innovative management happens on a daily basis.
- "Implementation of the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program. BQA is a training program with an on-farm assessment with the goal of improving animal well-being and food safety. It focuses on training employees to do the best job possible for caring for the animal and its needs. Through simple, bi-lingual 5-minute videos, we’ve seen a 27% increase in understanding of how to perform farm management tasks like animal handling and care, antibiotic usage, etc. Having access to consistent, high-quality training is a must. As a follow up to the training, the assessment assures that the farm is doing what it should be doing, based on what was outlined in the training program. There is also a youth/student BQA equivalent that does a great job of teaching those coming into the industry proper techniques and practices.
- "In Kansas alone, we’ve done BQA assessments on 2 million (out of 2.2 million) cattle. It’s been a wonderful program for animal well-being improvement, animal handling and food safety."
Peter Davies, BVSC, PhD – Professor of Animal Science, University of Minnesota
"It’s way more complex than to be able to say one type does it one way and another does it differently. I don’t think either sector owns “good care” or “bad care” – it has much to do with the individuals working on and managing the farms – not the size of the farms. As farms have gotten bigger, there are more risks involved with infectious disease, so if farms have problems with health, there’s potential for substantial animal health problems. As farms have gotten larger over time, we’ve seen management practices that have contributed to good animal health, more uniformed sourcing of animals (coming from the same farms), investments and advancements in biosecurity. There are a number of things large farms do to maintain animal health."