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Animal welfare is a hot topic lately. But it's not something that lives by itself in a vacuum. It is the result of a correct or mindful human-animal interaction.

Animal welfare was the subject of the October Hoard's Dairyman webinar where Robert Hagevoort, from New Mexico State University, delved into how the welfare of people affects the welfare of animals on farms. 

“Ultimately what happens to those cows is the outcome of our actions as owners, managers, employees, of those dairies,” said Hagevoort. "It’s an outcome of that positive interaction between that human and that animal. At the end of the day we want to make sure that an employee goes home to his or her family and has dinner at home."

While the animal component is based off of dairy breeds being domesticated about 10,000 years ago and during the process, acceptable temperaments of animals were selected. However, animals have an innate behavior for innate instinct, Hagevoort said. Their learned behavior is the summation of all of the individual animal’s experiences and its interpretation of those experiences.

The human component though is more like an iceberg, Hagevoort explained. An employee's skill, knowledge and how they work with animals can be observed, but is only a part of what that person brings to the job.

The part of the employee iceberg that lies underwater is much larger, but not visible. It's the attitude, the character of that person that is unknown to others "but comes into play when we work with animals and the day is full and animals are putting a little pressure on us – that personality is going to come out," Hagevoort said. 

Managing people

Evaluating and measuring performance and outcomes allows owners and managers to be sure protocol is being followed, point to areas needing improvement and to provide direction when looking at where to invest during budgeting. 

For employees it helps identify areas where more coaching may be needed and provides a measure of accomplishment and celebration of achievements. However, while there are numerous performance metrics for cows - nutrition, reproduction, health - "when it comes to employees, we don't have that many," said Hagevoort. 

Herd sizes are increasing across the country and around the world. Large dairies employ about one person per 100 cows, Hagevoort said. But it's not family labor anymore. It's hired labor usually from a different cultural and linguistic background. Employment on farms is not based on skills however. 

"It is not like most of the employees come with a resume that says I am the top milker in the county. The employment is often based on the willingness to perform the job," said Hagevoort. "They are willing to work on your farm and milk cows or feed cows or breed cows. It is not necessarily based on the skill set. Little is known about their background, their training, specifically pertaining to large herding animals and these employees may not be familiar with working around large herding animals at all."

With the dairy industry transitioning from the traditional family farm to much larger farms that employ more people, "We virtually have no metrics to the performance of those employees," Hagevoort added. 

At one time farm owners and managers were cow managers. Now they are becoming people managers, but more and more the question becomes, where did the owners and managers learn the soft skill of managing people?

With more hired labor working on farms, more people without any background in dealing with cows may be hired. Hagevoort said research has shown that a large majority of potential employees no longer come from an agricultural background or have any experience in working with large animals or equipment.

Additionally, 60% of employees have a fifth grade level education or below. 

"That is very important in how we approach our training programs and how we set those up," said Hagevoort. "We still experience a high level of illiteracy or low reading comprehension level. Anything written may not be comprehended, so programs developed are targeted toward trying to avoid anything written. So we’re trying to do everything between video, and audio and trying to use technology."

There is also a high turnover in the first six to 12 months of employment since the physical labor done on farms may not be for everyone. 

A shift in a typical workforce from Hispanic employees to more Central American employees has also been seen. Along with a different culture and language, Central Americans are typically shorter resulting in more reaching up, causing fatigue, which can affect performance. 

Human well-being, safety

A number of variables affecting human well-being and safety come into play. The level of experience working with large herding animals, level of training and quality of that training, level of comprehension about herding animals, the age and size of the animals and the conditions, such as heat or cold, or the position on the dairy all affect employee performance.

"The conditions of the job determine, really determine, some of the performance that’s going to take place," said Hagevoort. "Dairies are designed around cow comfort. My question is, what are we doing to make human comfort, to get human performance, to get employee performance, up to top notch par? Have we really thought about that?"

Worker comfort would look at ergonomically designing dairies to maximize worker performance. 

"There are dairies where animals are standing on rubber, but employees are standing on concrete in the parlor," Hagevoort said. "There are issues ergonomically where we can improve."

What has been learned over time from animal handling training is that a large majority of employees have no experience handling large animals or equipment and may know very little about animal senses. 

"Many employees have the wrong perceptions about how to act around animals," said Hagevoort. "Even the seasoned worker may know what to do, but may not know why."

Experienced workers appreciate the validation of their skills, Hagevoort added. Owners and managers can make a great impact by reinforcing how important animal handling skills are to them. 

Skill set learned over time

So what does this all mean for animal welfare?

"Animal handling is really much more of an art than a task," said Hagevoort. "Correct animal handling starts the day the animal is born and continues for a lifetime."

Learned behavior is an important component of the human-animal interaction equation. Cows have great memories and recognize people and know who treats them well and who does not. What cows learn over time is very important in regards to how they will respond to people. 

For farm workers, animal handling skills are learned slowly.

"Those of us who grew up on a farm know this," Hagevoort said. "We have practiced over and over again. It takes a long time. It’s not something we start at 8 o’clock in the morning and by 5 o’clock in the afternoon we want to have an expert in animal handling."

Employers need to know what personality traits a cow handler should possess or traits to be aware of and not hire, Hagevoort pointed out. 

"My personal experience is that dairies where handlers understand why they are doing what they are doing — cows are typically calmer, more curious and less fearful of humans and human interactions," said Hagevoort. "And that’s a personal experience in all the farms I’ve been on through the years."

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Animal welfare is "a commitment that starts at the top" and trickles down as the result of people interacting correctly with animals, understanding and anticipating how animals will respond to pressure.

"It is not so much that we have a head up on a cow, because a cow is always going to win. They are 1,500 pounds, they are much faster. They are much stronger. They are always going to win," said Hagevoort. "The only way a human can win with a cow is anticipating ahead of time – how an animal is going to respond – to the pressure that we put on that animal."

When there is a misunderstanding of herding behavior and cow senses or there is incorrect human behavior around the animals, animal welfare is jeopardized or compromised. 

"Employees typically mean well, but if you can’t anticipate what animals will do it is real easy to get frustrated and that frustration is the perfect setup for the wrong outcome and possible animal mishandling or abuse," Hagevoort said. "Human well-being, human safety concerns do increase with the lack of understanding of what a 1,500 pound animal can do."

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or carol.spaeth-bauer@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/carol.spaethbauer.

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