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Animal well-being a shared responsibility of owners, employees

Jan. 28, 2014 | 0 comments

FOND DU LAC

The hands-on employees are not the only persons responsible for animal well-being, Fond du Lac County Extension Service dairy and livestock agent Tina Kohlman emphasized in the lead-off presentation at a program titled "Dealing With Compromised Cattle."

Kohlman pointed out that the program here, which drew an attendance of 35, was prompted by the alleged abuse of dairy cows at a Brown County farm that was shown in an undercover video released in December. She said the program here, which featured four speakers, was a pilot effort for a series of similar events being organized by the Extension Service around the state.

Other parties with a role in preparing Kohlman's presentation were fellow Extension Service dairy and livestock agents Scott Gunderson in Manitowoc County, Sandy Stuttgen in Taylor County, Aerica Bjurstrom in Kewaunee County, Mark Hagedorn in Eau Claire County, and UW-Madison animal well-being specialist Amy Stanton, who was a speaker later at the session here.

Consumer connections

With several generations already separating most of today's population from any direct connection with agriculture, most people aren't familiar with the beliefs and values that prevail in agriculture, Kohlman observed. The public mindset is rooted in visions of red barns, cows grazing on grass, pigs wallowing in mud, and lambs roaming on green hillsides, she indicated.

For a great majority of the population, the contact with animals has been reduced to having them as pets and seeing other species in zoos, Kohlman indicated. This can easily pose a problem for the .3 percent of the United States population, which claims farming as its main occupation, she stated.

Consumers expect more today in terms in animal care, environmental management, and food quality, according to a statement by a National Pork Board official that Kohlman cited. She added that the same point applies to all of the sectors providing food.

Animal well-being

The ingredients of what the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) defines as constituting animal well-being are derived from Brambell's Five Freedoms, which were proclaimed for humans in the United Kingdom, Kohlman pointed out. The Brambell list mentions freedom from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear, and distress and be able to express normal behavior.

Similarly, the AMVA's list says animal welfare covers being healthy, comfortable, well-nourished, safe, able to express innate behavior, and not suffering from pain, fear, or distress — all to be verified by scientific evidence, Kohlman stated.

When those standards are not met, it could be because of ignorance or lack of skill regarding animal care, a caretaker's economic hardship, injury, illness, or absence, apathy or laziness prompted by weather extremes, cultural or societal factors, or environmental disasters, Kohlman remarked.

Underlying principles

Animal health should be maintained with preventive care augmented by rapid diagnosis or problems and treatment when necessary, Kohlman recommended.

She said this can be done with a combination of a valid client relationship with a veterinarian, maintaining a current herd health plan, having management protocols for dealing with pain procedures and conditions, and for special needs cattle, and creating appropriate euthanasia guidelines along with providing training and designating authority to conduct euthanasia to specific persons.

Preventive care starts with adequate planning, training, and development of standard operating procedures (SOPs) that cover all common and many potential unusual situations, Kohlman stated. A veternarian in the crowd suggested the Extension Service provide guidelines on how to develop a set of SOPs.

An animal care plan would consider the resources, identify risks and how to mitigate them, and address what to do in contingencies such as when an owner or herd manager is absent or when a rare situation would arise, Kohlman explained. She said some dairy plant fieldmen have undergone special training on those points.

Focusing on risk

Situations likely to increase risk are cow health near calving time, calves in early life, the grouping and moving of animals, lameness, mastitis, injured and cull candidate animals, extreme weather conditions, deficiencies in employee training and supervision, and lack of time to complete tasks, Kohlman pointed out.

It is on those latter points that there are significant farmer owner responsibilities, Kohlman stressed. She listed employee background checks but acknowledged that the pool of potential employees has dipped in recent years, daily supervision of employees, training and retraining, having an employee manual that outlines expectations, the welcoming of questions and encouraging of employees to report bad behavior, and control on visitor and farm access.

The farmer responsibility includes a batch of "ensures," Kohlmann continued. They include training on best management practices and low-stress cattle handling techniques, having animal handlers understand behavioral principles, assuring that all animals have rewarding rather than adverse interactions with humans, and keeping equipment and animal facilities in good working condition.

Employee success

Lay the groundwork for employees to be successful with clarity on job descriptions, written protocols and standard operating procedures, clear policies, discipline through demonstrating procedures, follow-through and follow-up, setting a good example, and accountability that assigns certain responsibilities to everyone and evaluates employee performance to prevent drift from protocols, Kohlman advised.

Doing those things should help in recognizing signs of stress, illness, or injury, proper handling of injured or down cows, administering animal health care products properly, responding appropriately to weather stress, and the keeping of good records, Kohlman suggested.

Cattle handling is a topic that typically requires training and education on such points as recognizing flight zones, avoiding sudden movements and loud noises, the proper handling and movement of down cows, and appropriate use of restraining and handling devices, Kohlman stated.

Employee failure

In cases of employee failure to observe a defined animal care plan, there needs to be an internal response and could be an external response (the Brown County case being the most recent example), Kohlman indicated. The internal response could require new training, an employee reprimand, or termination, she pointed out.

If an external response is in order, cooperate with authorities, address and assess the situation with a veterinarian, gather information, and prepare a written and verbal statement that is clear and concise and in document form, Kohlman advised. Delivered by one designated on-farm spokesperson, the response should refer to treatment and cull records, euthanasia plan and records, and animal care protocols, she indicated.

Be concise, maintain composure, and don't stray from a consistent message because nothing that is said is likely to be treated as being "off the record," Kohlman warned. "And avoid agriculture jargon."

Dairy farm video

Regarding the video released by Mercy for Animals that was taken at the Wiese Brothers Dairy in Brown County, Kohlman cautioned that "the full story" is probably not known yet. She cited the ongoing investigation by a humane officer from the county sheriff's department.

It is highly unlikely that there is widespread blatant abuse of animals in Wisconsin's livestock sector, Kohlman remarked. She acknowledged that deviations from proper practice are possible and suggested that investigation, retraining, or termination are appropriate responses in those cases.

The video obtained at the dairy farm near Greenleaf was the latest in a series of such disclosures from around the country in recent years. One of most extensive videos was taken at a hog farm in Ohio. It was shown frequently on HBO nearly seven years ago.

Additional resources

As independent resources for assessing attainment on animal welfare goals, Kohlman mentioned the dairy and pork quality assurance programs — websites are www.dqacenter.org and www.pork.org. Others are the national dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management project (www.nationaldairyfarm.com), Validus at www.emslic.org, and SES Inc. at www.awaudit.org.

Resources also include the Dairy Animal Quality Care Assurance project, the National Dairy Animal Well-Being Initiative, the University of California-Davis veterinary medicine department, and Canada's Farm Animal Care Council. The UW's Amy Stanton is developing a website for Wisconsin on animal well-being.

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