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3 Open Minutes with Jennifer Walker

Progressive Dairy Editor Walt Cooley Published on 17 February 2021
3 open minutes

Jennifer Walker is a former dairy veterinarian who is now the director of quality and care for Danone North America. She oversees Danone's milk quality and animal welfare programs for the 700 U.S. dairy farms that supply the company’s milk. In short, she says her job is to "make sure the cows are happy, and the milk is awesome."

Progressive Dairy Editor Walt Cooley spoke with her about the state of animal welfare and milk quality in the U.S. and where technology has the potential to help farmers and processors advance their shared interest in meeting consumer expectations. 

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“JenniferJennifer Walker
Director of Quality and Care
Danone North America

I've heard you say before that dairy producers are suppliers and that the end consumers are our customer. Explain that position. 

WALKER: I've seen a tendency within the dairy industry for farmers to take the position or feel like they are the customer. That could be when they're working with a processor, their cooperative or the buyers of their milk. I didn't really appreciate the customer concept until I came to work for a processor. However, creating that different habit of thought can affect people's behavior, their actions and how they deliver on a daily basis. Ultimately, you know, we all have to respond to the retailers that consumers frequent – the grocery stores, restaurants and places like that. Those are the folks that ultimately can make or break your business. So I think that consumer-centric position statement is just a healthy reminder that have we all have the same customer in the end. And we need to always keep them top of mind. 

Technology seems to be coming really hard and fast – both at producers to meet specific needs and also enabling customers to ask for certain wants. As an industry, how well are we bridging the gap between producer needs and consumer wants with technology?

WALKER: I think we're getting there, but I don't think we're quite there yet. Things like blockchain have huge potential. If we can get there, there will be a huge advantage, both for cows and farmers. We can use it in unique and innovative ways to support farmers, support animal welfare, as well as support the dairy businesses. 

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We're getting closer to connecting farm to factory gate to fridge, but I don't think we've really unleashed it yet. I think we're on that journey, and we're going to move a lot faster toward it than I think any of us probably realize.

How far away from that future are we? What does your crystal ball say?

WALKER: I think we're less than five years away. I think we're on the cusp because we're really looking for ways to connect with consumers and because I think we need it. If you think about the ways that other products connect with consumers and kind of become a part of their life, we struggle with that on the food side of the business. 

We're trying to help consumers see their food as something more. We need to see food as a transformational way to change lives – a way to make people's lives better. It's thinking of food as beyond just something to enjoy or sustenance. 

I can't wait until we can scan a carton of milk or a cup of yogurt, and say, "Wow, this came from these many farms on this day." You could then get a snapshot of where that milk started and see its journey. To me, that will be a connection and a win-win. It'll be a great reminder to farmers of who we work for and also a great reminder to consumers of what it takes to get that dairy product to them. 

One of the other phrases that I've heard you say before that I really like is: “Change happens through people.” If change happens through people, how should dairies approach a non-human asset like technology?

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WALKER: I think that's a great question. I don't think every technology fits every farm. The reality is that data doesn't fix things; alarms don't fix things. Every farm needs to look for systems that would work with their capabilities, or to make sure they're going to use new technology to its full advantage. 

I think producers also need to push technology providers to demand systems that can help them manage and create actionable data. I think sometimes we just get drowned data. We see all kinds of data, and we're doing nothing with it. 

A lot of systems in their early iterations have been really good at alarms and creating a lot of data. Now the next step is how do we really boil down data into something that makes us change what we're doing on the farm. 

I hate this phrase, but I'm going to say it: It needs to help us work smarter, not harder. There's a tendency for some of these technologies to come in and say, "Here's what we have. Here's what we've built, and this is what you need from us." But they really need to be able to adapt their technology to the needs of the farm. Winning technology companies understand they need to adapt. 

It's really asking both the question of how should dairies approach technology? But at the same time, how should technology approach dairies? A lot of technology is not an out-of-the-box fit, and the key is for both producers and technology providers to be adaptable.

Grade technology's current impact on animal welfare and milk quality. What letter grade would you give?

WALKER: I'll give the industry a solid B, maybe B minus. Maybe that's just because my expectations are so high for technology. 

When it comes to animal welfare, technology is good at alarms. It's good at finding things. I think lameness locomotion scoring is a great example. But we need to make sure we can have a system that does more than just identify a lame cow. 

We've put a lot of stake in animal welfare programs, and our program does it too, on scoring for lame cows, right? We monitor percentage of lame cows. We get prevalence of lameness or prevalence of X, Y or Z condition in the herd. What if I go from 15 percent prevalence in one year to 10 percent the next year? Did I stop creating lame cows? Or did I get good at identifying them and treating them? Or identifying them and selling them? 

From a welfare perspective, the goal isn't just to drive the number of lame cows I count on a given day down. The goal is to prevent lameness. It's to create systems that promote healthy feet. I think that's the challenge: We've allowed data to let us focus a little on not seeing the forest for the trees, if you will. 

On the milk quality side, I struggle a little bit because I think there's a huge amount of potential there. But I also sometimes wonder if we haven't used the current data to our advantage, and we haven't figured out how to leverage it in a way that we can be a little bit more proactive, instead of reactive. 

Where I see things going that will have a huge benefit is when we start developing technology and measures that really are leading indicators of problems. Right now, we're really good at lagging indicators. I want technology that creates leading indicators – that tells me she's going to get mastitis before she's got mastitis and before the milk hits the tank. And so, that's where I think we have some opportunity to improve. 

Often until a technology comes around, producers might just think, "Well, this is the way we've always done it. We don't know any different." How does the dairy become aware of what they don't know?

WALKER: Part of that, I think, is just opening doors and looking for folks outside of the regular ag circle. I think we have a habit of folks coming to us with solutions that are all within the dairy industry. 

With my experience in animal welfare, I've had the opportunity to work with or collaborate with folks outside of dairy. For example, I've learned a lot from a good friend of mine that works for Tyson, who's done amazing research with chickens. When I see that I think, "Oh my gosh, why didn't we think of that? Why aren't we doing this with cows?"

As farmers kind of get outside of their comfort zone or get outside their normal circle, that will be the key to learning what they don't know they don't know. 

Give me some examples of technologies or groups of technologies that you think are on the right track for dairy producers to use them efficiently, and then some that aren't quite yet ready for prime time. 

WALKER: One of the technologies that I don't think translated to what we thought it would be was video monitoring for animal welfare. That's partly because it's not flexible, and it's very time-consuming.

Machine learning and computer vision, where we can build algorithms to help us monitor change from one day, I'd say it's not quite ready for prime time, but pretty darn close. Where it's really lacking is in that ability to distill the information down so that it's not overwhelming. That's probably what's holding it back.

If we look at milking robots, which I originally wasn't a fan of for milking, I'll admit that I like them more and more. I think they're the way to go. A lot of that technology was a little bit ahead of its time, and farms didn't know or were not prepared to manage them properly. We see a lot of folks who take on robots, and the learning curve is just so steep. And I think technology providers could probably learn from that. There's just so much information generated in a milking robot. There's only so many hours in a day, and so you need to have somebody help filter information from a milking robot and make it meaningful and actionable, not overwhelming. 

As an industry, do you feel we are meeting consumers expectations for quality and animal welfare?

WALKER: That's hard. I think it depends on the definition of what consumers expect. I think consumers expect that we do our level best, that we take good care of our cows, that we try to keep them happy and healthy. We do try to provide high-quality milk every day. And I think if that is the expectation, then we do a remarkable job. 

We fail on occasion, just like everyone fails on occasion at what they do, right? We all have good days; we all have bad days. There's plenty of people who own their own small business who have maybe hired the wrong people or maybe didn't provide the level of training they should have. That challenge is not unique to just dairy farms or farming in general. 

What does that mean to the consumer who knows nothing about dairy farming when we say we make sure cows are happy and well cared for? If a consumer thinks that means each cow got their own individual 10-acre system or say a massage every day, that's where I think the disconnect is. 

Somewhat related, and my last question, what do the outcomes for animal welfare look like for a dairy producer in the next five years?

WALKER: They're definitely going to continue to evolve. I think that's the important message for dairy farmers. For example, the FARM Program is an example of evolution. We're on version four now after more than a decade. 

To me, there's also this whole other component to welfare, the emotional side. That emotional component of animal welfare is as important as the rest of it. How do we know what a happy cow looks like? This again is where there may be potential for facial recognition. Research has been done in other species with facial recognition and welfare. I would love to have facial recognition so we can see the state of a cow and be able to know, on a scale of 1 to 10, if cows are happy today. And if not, why? What happened? We need to start talking about the emotional lives of cows and the animals in our care to make sure that we're not ignoring that component of their welfare. It's hard to get at. And it's complicated. But it's worth trying to unpack because it's important to consumers and the cows.  end mark

Join Jennifer Walker, director of milk quality at Danone, at the virtual Animal AgTech Innovation Summit on March 8 as she discusses “Next Generation Innovation for a Healthier, Higher Value Animal Ag Industry” during the One Health Track at 9:20 a.m. Pacific time. Book your place now at the summit website and save a further 10% on registration with this discount code: PROD10

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