A Brown County dairy operation was the subject of an undercover video this week, which was shot in October and November by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals.
A member of the group had posed as a farm worker at Wiese Brothers dairy farm near Greenleaf to obtain the video, which was then given to NBC News, which added its reporting to the video.
Officials at the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection confirmed that the Brown County Sheriff's department was investigating the incident. In a statement the Wiese family said they were cooperating with local investigators and had invited an independent third-party group to come in and evaluate their animals and their animal care standards.
In the last year the family said they have been requiring employees to review training materials on animal care and sign a pledge about proper animal handling procedures as a condition of employment at their farm.
The Wieses said they had terminated two employees and a third had been removed from animal handling duties after the video came out. They said they have "zero tolerance" for animal abuse and were shocked and saddened by the video.
The video shows workers handling down cows with a cow lift and with skid steers and using sticks to prod cows to move.
In the wake of the video's release, frozen pizza maker Di Giorno said it would no longer accept cheese made from the milk that comes from the Wiese farm. Their milk has been going to a Foremost Farms USA plant.
Joan Behr, a spokesperson for Foremost said the treatment depicted in the video is "extremely disappointing" and that "to protect consumer trust and confidence in the dairy industry, we have discontinued receiving milk from the farm depicted in the video."
A spokesman for Mercy for Animal had specifically named Di Giorno (which is part of the pizza division of the Nestle corporation), Tuesday, saying the pizza company had "no meaningful animal welfare standards."
Wiese Brothers Farm said it has been in the dairy business for nearly two decades and became aware of the video on Nov. 26. "We are committed to providing optimal care and ask all our employees to demonstrate ongoing respect for every animal at all times," they said in a statement.
"We are dedicated to not only producing the highest quality milk, but also providing the best care for our animals through every stage of their lives," they added.
In addition to firing the two employees, the Wiese family said they had identified three employees who will be specialists to supervise the care and handling of any cow that is unable to get up without assistance. They will also shadow employees without notice to ensure that protocols they have put in place for animal care are being met or exceeded.
Each of the actions, they said, will "help us ensure that the behaviors seen in this video are never repeated on our farm."
Within 24 hours of learning of the undercover video, the Wieses said they had called in an independent animal care auditor for a thorough review of the farm's written protocols for animal handling and to observe their employees and the condition of their animals.
Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel said he wondered why if someone was worried about animals being mistreated when video was shot in October or November that information didn't surface until December. "They had not reported this to authorities and put their efforts into making a video," he said Tuesday.
"We all know there are organizations out there with an agenda," Brancel said.
"My goal is for every animal to be treated with care and for every farmer to understand how to do that," he added.
"If individuals are not handling livestock properly they should be dealt with by the farm and not through video, which can take weeks." Brancel's comments were made to board members Dec. 10 during a monthly meeting of his department's policy board.
Shelly Mayer, with the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, said the state's dairy farmers take their responsibility to provide the highest quality animal care very seriously.
"It is our moral and ethical obligation to do so. The well-being of our cows is of the highest priority.
"We were saddened to learn of the possible mistreatment of animals on a Wisconsin dairy farm. The behaviors and actions of the farm employees in this video are not representative of how Wisconsin dairy farmers care for their animals every day. We are confident local investigators will examine all of the facts surrounding this incident and take the necessary steps to ensure this type of behavior is not repeated."