UW-Madison professor's study of dairy animal welfare shows shared values of consumers and dairy producers

Gloria Hafemeister
Dr. Jennifer Van Os is a researcher and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she focuses on animal welfare and consumer concerns about animal care.

LOMIRA - “Our cows are black and white but the issues are not,” says Dr. Jennifer Van Os, a researcher and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.         

Dr. Van Os’ research focuses on understanding, evaluating, and improving the welfare of dairy animals from a biological perspective. She shared her findings recently with dairy producers at the Dodge-Fond du Lac County Forage Council meeting at Lomira.

Van Os received her Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary Animal Behavior graduate program at the University of California-Davis (UC Davis) and conducted postdoctoral research in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis and with the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia.

Before earning her degree, however, she says she was just like the other millenials in her age bracket who are interested in where their food comes from.

She describes millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996 who have a deep desire to make the world a better place.  They grew up with computers, video games and cell phones.

“Why do we care what they think?” she challenges.  “Because they make up the majority of the workers in the U.S. and are 40 percent of the consumers.”

Van Os did not grow up on a farm and after college she went to California where she got into surfing and horseback riding and was on the front end of the group of people who were interested in where their food came from.

She read Michael Palin’s books and describes him as a good writer who had no understanding of agriculture.

She and other millenials were also interested in documentaries like Cowspiracy, a production claiming that livestock farming  is destroying the earth and Eating Animals, another documentary that has a lot of false information about farming.

She notes, “The producers of these documentaries are in the business of storytelling. They are not trained in investigative reporting and they know nothing about agriculture. They are entertainers.”

Van Os believes the reason they are so successful in influencing consumers is because their story-telling techniques get at people’s emotions.

Eventually she started to think a lot about how this false information that is not science and fact based was hurting agriculture.  That’s when she went back to school to learn more about animal welfare.

“As a millenial I felt I had good intentions but as time went by I realized farmers do, too,” she says.

In her studies she looked at shared values of consumers and dairy producers. Where there are differences she is then able to help dairy farmers learn how to address the issues.

She points out that consumers are concerned about pain the animals may have when it comes to things like lameness or dehorning. Relaying the message about how animals are cared for to alleviate pain will therefore be important.

Consumers like to see animals socially happy so sharing stories about how calves are moved in groups and stay with their “friends” will help consumers get a better understanding of management practices.

“Don’t use economics in an argument,” she stresses. “Statements like, ‘we take care of our cows because they take care of us’ mean nothing to consumers.”

She states, “The writing is on the wall that changes are coming. We don’t want the same thing to happen in dairy that happened with the chicken industry.”

She stresses the importance of looking at research regarding various systems of raising animals. 

In California, for instance, the original law regarding how chickens can be raised resulted in more chicken mortality because the system that consumers wanted was not the system that was healthiest for the chickens.

She advises farms to be transparent about what they are doing and acknowledge the shared values — things where consumers and producers see eye to eye.

“Don’t sugar coat things, but be honest because they will see right through you,” she states. “Knowing what consumers care about will help in knowing which things to emphasize in conversations.”

As a dairy scientist she is continually striving to learn more about animal welfare.

She says, “I welcome collaborations with others who seek to promote the sustainability of the dairy industry and to improve quality of life for dairy animals.”