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Wellness of dairy employees connected to better animal health

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairy Published on 18 October 2019

Dairy producers are committed to improving animal welfare every day, but the needs of the animal caregivers play heavily into it, said Dr. Michelle Calvo-Lorenzo, technical consultant for Elanco Animal Health.

In her presentation at the 4-State Dairy Nutrition and Management Conference earlier this year, she highlighted the need for the U.S. dairy industry to address animal welfare issues in a holistic manner whereby the aspects of health and production of cattle welfare are met, in addition to the welfare needs of their caregivers.

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“New methods of addressing cattle welfare-related issues may require a shift in farm leadership skills, approach or training because the industry must focus efforts on its people as part of its focus on animals,” Calvo-Lorenzo said. “Given the increased need and dependency of a skilled and stable workforce to carry out cattle management needs in dairies, new tools must account for the physical and mental well-being of owners, managers and hired labor of dairies.”

Overall, there has been great progress in the dairy industry in the past 30-plus years, she said. “Welfare conversations and future vision of dairy farming are continuously evolving. In addition, many standards and resources have been developed to assess and address livestock welfare issues.”

She added, “Animal welfare issues must be tackled in a holistic manner. We need to look beyond the health and production of the animal and include the welfare of the caregivers.”

Productivity, livestock welfare, facilities and customer expectations weigh heavily into what dairy producers are focusing on, and those things should be valued, but Calvo-Lorenzo said the equation must also include the well-being of farm workers.

The U.S. National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) surveyed U.S. dairies and reported in 2015 that immigrant labor accounted for 50% of all dairy labor surveyed, and those dairies which employed immigrant labor represented 62% of the U.S. milk supply.

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Calvo-Lorenzo cited a Cornell University 2016 survey of Hispanic farm workers in New York which stated 73% of them had children residing in their home country and 43% had their spouses residing in their home countries.

In addition to living away from their families, for many Hispanic employees, English is their second or third language. Moreover, there can be high physical labor demands, a high rate of work-related injuries, low-paying salaries and high turnover rates on dairies, she said.

Off-farm, dairy employees may deal with limited access to health care and concerns centered on immigration status in this country (i.e. fear of being arrested and/or deported or the expense and time required for being here as a legal immigrant). Much of the money they make may be sent back to their home countries to support their families.

Other challenges for Hispanic workers include a disconnect on the value and importance placed on workers and their role in animal welfare and farm profitability. There is a lack of information on workforce cultural differences and how barriers of language and literacy levels are accounted for.

Industry-wide leadership is needed, said Calvo-Lorenzo, and metrics need to be developed to measure the connection between worker welfare and animal welfare. “Very little to no metrics exist to quantify or evaluate job satisfaction, social integration and worker performance [of dairy employees].”

Calvo-Lorenzo said she doesn’t think the dairy industry should be accountable for the personal issues of all employees, but she added, “When those issues are recognized and the workplace is established so that employees enjoy what they do and know their employers value them (value does not always mean compensation alone), then that’s where one will find the connection between improving worker welfare and animal welfare. Furthermore, that connection also extends to the sustainability of an operation because content and loyal employees are engaged and likely to stay at an operation for a long time (i.e. reduced turnover rates).”

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She said it is beneficial for dairy owners and managers to acknowledge that investments in dairy employees are needed. This means resources and time are needed to determine what leadership style and approach should be taken to effectively hire employees, train employees, build a positive farm culture, provide meaningful feedback, develop long-term career goals, etc.

“This, as you can imagine, is mostly an HR-related focus. In general, if the work environment is enhanced, employees experience job satisfaction, and they feel valued/ supported, that can positively shift employee morale and loyalty in a way that employees will likely do what is right for the operation, their animals and their teammates.

“Hopefully, that will lead to reduced stress from the ‘on-farm’ issues they experience. If employees enjoy their job, workplace, and colleagues (i.e. high job satisfaction), and their employers are able to compensate them appropriately and provide benefits (i.e. insurance, vacation, etc.), then that combination might be able to help with some of the burdens relative to the ‘off-farm’ issues they experience,” she said. “If the industry is spending a lot of time and resources to invest in cow/calf welfare (which is a great thing), then a logical approach to continue driving welfare improvement would be to also account for the welfare of its employees. I know dairy producers want the best for their employees. To do that, it’s important to understand more about employees’ concerns, motivations and potential obstacles.”

Animal welfare is a continuously transforming issue that resonates strongly with consumers and the dairy industry. Calvo-Lorenzo said that in addition to the connection between farm employee welfare and cattle welfare, there are other factors which should be addressed by the dairy industry as a whole. These include understanding, adopting and assuring compliance to animal welfare standards.

Although many standards and resources have been developed to assess and address livestock welfare issues, there are currently two federal livestock welfare laws in the U.S. – the Twenty-Eight-Hour Law concerning animal transportation, and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. There are no U.S. federal laws that regulate the management of livestock and poultry.

Much of the European Union uses the guidelines of The Five Freedoms, adopted in the UK by the Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1979. Livestock welfare programs are to be based on these “ideal states” of welfare, supporting that livestock should have:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from pain, injury or disease
  3. Freedom to express normal behavior
  4. Freedom from fear and distress

Calvo-Lorenzo said in order for the dairy industry to position itself as a leader in animal welfare, they need to have discussions on important issues, be informed on the current animal welfare science, and fully understand welfare standards like the regulations and guidelines mentioned above. Moreover, she added, the industry must foster new ways to collaborate, learn from other livestock industries, and demonstrate shared values and compliance with accepted standards.  end mark

Boylen is a freelancer based in northeast Iowa.

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