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Livestock producers in their sights

Chuck Schwartau Published on 30 June 2010

By now dairy producers and others have heard about or viewed the released video of animal abuse on an Ohio farm. Anyone who has seen it will agree the actions shown are intolerable. There is some debate floating around as to what the farm owner may have known or not known about the activities of the employees shown, but that is for others to determine.

What is important is what farmers learn about preventing this kind of incident on their own farms. What should be learned may be in two different avenues: livestock handling procedures and employment practices. The two are closely related because having the right employees who have positive attitudes about working with animals will help make the livestock handling procedures an easier issue to manage.

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Determining a prospective employee’s attitude towards animals isn’t always easy, but there are indicators you can spot if you are looking for them. I’d like to relate a personal story from some twenty years ago.

Our daughter had written a brief essay about why she would like to be the recipient of an Arab yearling filly that someone wanted to give to a young 4-H’er. The donor of the filly called us, inviting us to come to the farm for a visit. We packed the family up and headed for the farm where we met the owner and the filly. She led the filly out of the barn and invited us to “meet” her. All this time she was casually visiting with us and observing how we interacted with the filly. After a little while we were asked when we wanted to take the filly home. We had an excited daughter and one more horse!

The donor then admitted to me, it wasn’t so much the essay that was the determining factor; but she wanted to see how we may treat a horse. She observed the calm manner with which family members approached the filly; how we spoke around her; how we handled her; and what kind of respect was shown the animal. Granted, these things aren’t easy to quantify, but a gut feeling from a first impression can go a long way.

Take a prospective employee out into the barns or into the parlor and just watch them while moving around. Deliberately move in and among the stock. You’ll get an idea of comfort levels around livestock and how they react to actions of the stock. While it isn’t very scientific, the stock might even tell you a thing or two if actions of the candidate tend to make stock especially nervous.

Some employers like to put candidates through a practical interview by having them perform a typical task which they profess to understand or know the skills to perform. It quickly sorts out the “pretenders” from the truly skilled and lets you observe their stockmanship skills. That is all part of the employee selection process.

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Another important step that has become more and more important to farms is having a policy in place about livestock handling and care. While you may have an implied policy of good animal care and handling, do you have it in writing, and have you shared it with your staff?

A policy on a farm probably doesn’t need to be long and complex, but it should outline your expectations for respectful treatment of all animals on the farm, what you expect of employees if they observe anyone abusing animals, and the consequences if they are guilty of abusing animals.

It may be very tempting to list every practice you want followed on the farm, but that may become so prescriptive that it becomes too cumbersome and complex to ever follow. Some details of animal care may be appropriate in your protocols or standard operating procedures for specific tasks. You might try including a list of actions that are unacceptable. Even such a list might miss something, so be thorough but cautious.

The American Veterinary Medical Association adopted a concise set of principles that might give you some ideas. Following are statements from their policy that may be appropriate for a farm policy:

• The responsible use of animals for human purposes, such as companionship, food, fiber, recreation, work, education, exhibition and research conducted for the benefit of both humans and animals, is consistent with the Veterinarian’s Oath.

• Decisions regarding animal care, use and welfare shall be made by balancing scientific knowledge and professional judgment with consideration of ethical and societal values.

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• Animals must be provided water, food, proper handling, health care and an environment appropriate to their care and use, with thoughtful consideration for their species-typical biology and behavior.

• Animals should be cared for in ways that minimize fear, pain, stress and suffering.

• Procedures related to animal housing, management, care and use should be continuously evaluated, and when indicated, refined or replaced.

• Animals shall be treated with respect and dignity throughout their lives and, when necessary, provided a humane death.

Some of that language may feel a bit cumbersome to you, but the concepts shouldn’t be too hard to adapt to your needs.

Here are steps I’d suggest for you and your farm:

• If you don’t already have one, develop a policy of animal care and handling.

• Write the policy down.

• Share the policy with everyone on the farm (family and hired employees).

• Be sure everyone understands the policy expectations and consequences of non-compliance.

• Provide training, if necessary.

• Have everyone sign a copy of the policy as part of their employment contract.

• Periodically review and remind everyone of the policy to be sure it is followed.

• Follow the policy.

If you implement these suggestions, you should have little to fear from being the subject of an “undercover spy” seeking to document animal abuse on your farm, but I will make a brief statement about that kind of activity.

The fact that undercover video pops up from time to time reinforces that many farms are probably short on checking backgrounds of prospective employees and spending time with them to orientate them to the farm. Hiring any warm body that shows up can more easily result in this kind of employee. What should be as troubling about the employee who undertakes this secret taping activity is what that person is also not doing.

The tape from Ohio purports to show activity over some time period (up to a month). If that person was there only to protect animals’ welfare, the very first incident witnessed should have been reported immediately. Not reporting an incident and then just waiting for the next opportunity to video another incident makes that person just as responsible for the abuse. This is why I suggest your policy includes a statement that expects immediate reporting of any suspected abuse.

All livestock farmers have a stake in how the public believes you care for your animals. You may think everything you do is proper, but you also need to consider how a non-farm viewer may perceive what you do on a routine basis. Some practices may need to be changed by the whole industry to maintain a positive public opinion.

It is also not enough to say, “We take good care of our animals, because we know well-cared-for animals are more productive, and they are our livelihood.” Some in the general public won’t care about your profitability. Instead, it is probably more appropriate to say, “We care for our animals because it is the right thing to do.” That is a statement that will sell with just about anyone.

Oh yeah, and that grey Arab filly – she’s still a happy mare running around the pasture with her pasture-mate and handles like a sweetheart because of how she’s been handled all her life. PD

Excerpts from agbuzz.com

Chuck Schwartau
  • Chuck Schwartau

  • Extension Educator
  • University of Minnesota
  • Email Chuck Schwartau

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