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Animal Welfare: Stay Informed, Maintain Best Practices

Janice C. Swanson
Depts. of Animal Science & Large Animal Clinical Sciences

California’s passage of Proposition 2 has catalyzed reactions and discussions about possible referenda and policy-making in several states about animal welfare. Michigan dairy farmers must use approved practices and advancements in animal care and handling to maintain an outstanding reputation with the public.

California Proposition 2 has placed the food animal industries squarely in the political headlights. Numerous talks, advice, and strategizing have taken place since the second Tuesday of November, 2008. Passing with a 63% majority, Prop 2 sent a clear signal that change is coming and coming fast.

The focus of Prop 2 was clearly on veal calves raised for meat (plus sow gestation crates and caged hens). The California dairy industry appeared to be given a bye. But, a new legislative bill rapidly developed on banning a specific procedure --- tail docking, used in some dairies. The Illinois General Assembly has a bill similar to the California proposed ban on tail-docking on the docket. Dairy farms are clearly a focus.

Maine is the latest state to sign into law a bill containing nearly identical language to California Proposition 2. State by state the precedents are being set in a similar manner. Why? The language is simple, easy to understand and fundamentally hard to disagree with.

Key items of the statute are summarized as follows.
TREATMENT OF FARM ANIMALS. STATUTE. Requires that an enclosure or tether confining specified farm animals allow the animals for the majority of every day to fully extend their limbs or wings, lie down, stand up, and turn around. Specified animals includecalves raised for veal, egg-laying hens, and pregnant pigs. Exceptions made for transportation, rodeos, fairs, 4-H programs, lawful slaughter, research and veterinary purposes. Provides misdemeanor penalties, including a fine not to exceed $1,000 and/or imprisonment in jail for up to 180 days. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: Probably minor local and state enforcement and prosecution costs, partly offset by increased fine revenue (http://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/past/2008/general/text-proposed-laws/text-of-proposed-laws.pdf).

What should livestock producers consider in light of these events? First, is there any truth to the reasons given for concern? If one cites science as a basis for decision making, are you in tune with the science? What do you understand about the ethical basis for the concern? Consider the example of tail docking of dairy cattle.

Tail docking
When the practice first gained some acceptance in the industry many reasons were given to tail dock, not only by producers but by scientists too, including lower milk somatic cell counts, cleaner cows, prevention of leptospirosis among workers handling the cows, and lower risks of microbial contamination.

Unfortunately actual scientific evidence to support the claims was scant. Subsequently, research studies conducted in Australia, New Zealand, and in the U.S. at the University of Wisconsin, University of California-Davis, Purdue University and USDA-ARS Livestock Behavior Research Unit now indicate little or no correspondence to the often cited benefits on animal or human well-being and health. A comprehensive review of this scientific literature by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) led to a policy statement that does not support tail docking as a routine management practice (see tail docking in cattle backgrounder at www.avma.org/issues/animal_welfare/backgrounders.asp).

The AVMA opposes routine tail docking of cattle. Current scientific literature indicates that routine tail docking provides no benefit to the animal, and that tail docking can lead to distress during fly seasons. When medically necessary, amputation of tails must be performed by a licensed veterinarian. (www.avma.org/issues/policy/animal_welfare/tail_docking_cattle.asp)

Published, peer-reviewed scientific articles written by respected scientists have reached similar conclusions (articles available upon request to the author).

The message here is that when science cannot support a practice it may be best to abandon it or look for alternatives. Pick your battles carefully. The insistence to continue a practice when it is ill-supported scientifically and by the veterinary medical community casts doubt on the ethical bearings of an industry. Consequently, public confidence can be easily manipulated and eroded.

What consumers think
Recent consumer survey work (Tonsor, et al., 2009 in press) conducted by MSU indicates that consumers do place significant value on different attributes of animal welfare -- in particular on handling practices and housing conditions (www.msu.edu/~gtonsor/Presentations/Tonsor_2009MI.FarmBureauPPT(1.27.09).pdf).

The dairy industry (National Dairy Animal Well-Being Coalition) is implementing national animal care standards and has adopted a professional ethic with respect to the treatment and care of dairy cattle (www.dairywellbeing.org/guidelines.php). Use these principles or other well-constructed programs to form the basis of your philosophical approach to dairy farming. Whether your system is large or small, certified organic or not, pasture-based or confinement, the routine care and welfare of dairy cattle should always be a high priority.

Communicate with the public
Stay on top of advancements in animal care and handling. Be able to articulate best practices, why it’s a best practice and how the practice was evaluated. Most of all convey to your community that you care about the welfare of your animals. This is critical for the retention and fortification of public trust and helps to ensure a robust dairy industry in Michigan. The public depends on you to be the expert and to support the welfare of your animals.

Tonsor, G.T., C. Wolf, and N. Olynk. “Consumer Voting and Demand Behavior Regarding Swine Gestation Crates.” Food Policy. In press.




July 09 Issue

Animal Welfare
Keeping up-to-date with welfare of dairy cattle.

KBS Studies Pasture-based Milking
KBS transitions from conventional system to pasture-based milking.

Rumensin Toxicity
in Heifers

A case report about acute monensin toxicity in a Michigan dairy farm.

Climate Change
and Cows

An opinion on the climate change debate.

Management "Tips"
A series of "tips" aimed at assisting dairy producers especially in the current harsh economic climate.

New Faculty Members
Welcoming two new faculty members into Animal Science.

North American Dairy Challenge
MSU participation at the New York event.

Things Your Dad
Told You
Some manure application lessons.

Don't Run Off..
Reducing run-off from pastures.

Maximizing Intake
of Corn Silage

How corn silage affect energy intake and animal performance.

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