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Animal care and well-being: Perceptions and reality

David R. Wolfgang Published on 22 March 2010
cows in pen

Animal agriculture and farming “as usual” is increasingly coming under evaluation. This evaluation may be in the form of financial experts seeking to improve the sustainability/profitability of the agriculture enterprises.

Sometimes the evaluation comes in the form of regulators who wish to ensure that rules and regulations are followed as they pertain to bigger-picture issues like the environment; and sometimes the evaluation comes from consumer groups who may not be familiar with agricultural practices.

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For many who have been around animal agriculture all or most of their lives, it may be hard to envision just what impression we may or may not be making on the population in general. Camera phones and videos can take images that are disturbing and raise concerns. It is very important that those working on or owning farms become aware that for some with little background in production agriculture, from their perspective, what is seen is reality.

The care and well-being of farm animals is under scrutiny by consumers of animal products as well as concerned citizens. In general, producers and agricultural professionals have prided themselves over the past few decades by documenting significant production gains in all animal agriculture enterprises. While these gains have been important in providing plentiful, safe and economically-priced products desired by the public, segments of society have questioned some aspects of more intensive animal agricultural practices.

In particular, the health and care of animals in production has been the subject of several inquiries and initiatives. These initiatives are meant to make certain to the public that animals are raised under humane standards and high food safety guidelines are maintained. Recent concerns about food quality, food safety and environmental impact have increased the need to ensure the public that animal agriculture is meeting or exceeding the accepted standards for food safety, environmental stewardship and animal care.

One area where improvement is in order is in the area of records, standardized protocols and monitoring impacts and results. Few people enjoy paperwork, and keeping records that are never used nor have little value is a waste of time and resources. Especially in the area of animal health and husbandry, most farms simply have not taken the time to develop animal care or treatment protocols. These protocols can be relatively simple to construct and follow.

With a modest amount of planning, useful records and protocols can be developed that actually improve efficiency. Lacking effective protocols and records, it is impossible or at least very difficult, to determine or document what therapies are the most effective and if animal care and well-being is truly being promoted on a farm.

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A common theme that seems to keep arising when people question what is going on in agriculture is why do you do this, how do we know you don’t do that, how much of this “stuff” do you use and where does it go? Without some modest records and standard operating procedures, people outside of agriculture have limited ways to appreciate or evaluate what is done to ensure care for animals, the underlying safety of their products or potential long-term impacts on the environment. Especially in the area of animal care and treatments, producers must be encouraged to develop and use protocols that document what, how and why animals are treated and handled.

While government and industry standards often cover the fundamentals of environmental protection or animal care and food safety, there are ample opportunities to move beyond simple compliance to continuous improvement through best management practices. Numerous experts are available ... to assist producers. Programs directed by the animal agricultural industries with appropriate veterinary, agronomic and public oversight are the most efficient means of accomplishing the goals of safe food, affordable food, clean environment and excellent animal health. No one can be perfect all the time, so it is important that individual or short-term problems be seen just as that, aberrations, and not business “as usual.” PD

Excerpts from Penn State Dairy Focus newsletter, December 2009

David Wolfgang is an extension veterinarian withPenn State. Email David Wolfgang.

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