Animal welfare should be a strength for a dairy operation, not a threat

Jennifer Van Os
A farmer explains to a group of visitors who the well-being of the animals is addressed on their farming operations. Giving animals the highest quality of life possible should be at the forefront of every sustainable animal farming operation.

In a “SWOT” analysis, a business identifies its Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Strengths and weaknesses describe internal aspects of an operation, whereas opportunities and threats are external factors and trends in the marketplace.

Some producers who raise food animals perceive animal welfare as falling under the “threat” category. I’m hoping to clear the air and encourage producers to recognize that animal welfare is a strength and should be embraced.

I’ve seen a range of reactions in the dairy industry to the term animal welfare, some enthusiastic, others wary. I think for some people, part of their hesitation comes from the term being used interchangeably – but inaccurately – in the media when referring to animal activist organizations. Some of those organizations also describe themselves as seeking animal “rights,” “liberation,” or “abolition,” which are completely different goals from animal welfare.

Every person has their own individual opinion on what they consider ethical or appropriate when it comes to animals, just like how people can have very different but strongly held religious and political convictions.

Many animal activists share a view that it’s wrong for people to use animals, whether for food production, biomedical research, entertainment, or as pets. Therefore, their end goal is to stop people from raising and keeping animals. This value system is clearly incompatible with animal farming.

On the other hand, animal welfare refers to the concept that when we use animals for human purposes, there are responsible ways to do so. The goal is to ensure that animals experience the highest quality of life possible while under human management. Many scientists, such as myself, do research to increase our understanding of how to maximize animal welfare. A value system around animal welfare is not only compatible with animal production – it should be at the forefront of every sustainable animal farming operation.

The distinction between animal welfare and animal rights can be especially confusing when some animal activist groups use the tactic of raising concerns about animal welfare through public media campaigns. However, their goal is typically to get consumers so concerned with how animals are raised and treated that they stop using animal products, rather than to improve the conditions or care of the animals on any farm. For a dairy producer, there’s no corrective action to appease such organizations unless you switch to a different line of work.

Therefore, for the dairy community, some activist groups can indeed pose a threat. Nonetheless, demonizing vegans or people who value animal rights won’t make you more profitable or sustainable, nor help you gain ground in the public’s eye.

Instead, it can be valuable to focus on your operation’s strengths and weaknesses – internal aspects you can control. High quality animal care should be a strength of your operation, with excellent animal welfare as the outcome.

More than 98% of the national milk supply now comes from farms that follow the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Animal Care Program. Any corrective action requested by a processor or auditor should be seen as an opportunity to strengthen your operation and demonstrate to consumers your commitment to animal welfare.

Dairy producers face high expectations. But remember you have a strong support system of university researchers, extension educators, veterinarians, and consultants. This June Dairy Month, I hope the entire dairy community will celebrate and showcase their commitment to high standards for animal welfare.

Jennifer Van Os

Van Os is the Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in Animal Welfare, Department of Dairy Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison