You've likely heard the term “animal welfare” bantered about at industry events and in the media. But what does it really mean and how does it affect your ranch or feedlot?

BEEF posed that question to Janice Swanson, Michigan State University professor and director of animal welfare. In her role, she says the overriding goal is to integrate animal-welfare principles across all facets of animal care and handling.

Q: How do you define animal welfare?

A: Cattle producers should understand that the term is commonly used by the public when they ask questions about the care, use and treatment of animals. There is still a core understanding among the public that animals are in a purposeful relationship with humans and this relationship carries social obligations.

Within the industry, and scientifically, we tend to separate out the social components of animal welfare and prefer the term “animal well-being” when speaking more directly about the animal relative to its biological response to conditions of housing, handling, etc. However, what producers don't want to do is place themselves in the position of arguing against the welfare of the animal.

Q: Why is animal welfare becoming a more urgent concern in the livestock industry?

A: The urgency is connected to the speed with which the public dynamic is changing relative to socially acceptable animal-production practices or systems. California's Prop 2 sent a message to the rest of the country that citizens are attracted to and interested in issues of farm-animal welfare and willing to act if given the opportunity.

For the livestock industry, this should prompt an interrogation of reality with respect to current practices and industry improvement. The livestock industry needs to determine how to achieve a level of public transparency that will satisfy the public's need to know while allowing producers to be comfortable with how they raise and handle their livestock.

Q: Can you provide a short checklist of management practices or guidelines livestock operators should follow to ensure animal welfare?

A: Knowledgeable, well-trained managers and livestock handlers should consider these priorities:

  1. Be sure all personnel who handle cattle are trained in low-stress cattle-handling techniques, and that management reinforces the use of these techniques. When management stops caring, so do employees. There should be zero tolerance for animal abuse.

  2. There's no substitute for implementing preventive health measures that assure healthy, fit cattle. Have an established relationship with a veterinarian, consultant and/or Extension professional to assist you in building a health program that meets the cattle's needs. Then follow the recommendations.

  3. Stay current with best practice. Follow guidelines that have been scientifically verified and acknowledged as providing a humane standard of care for cattle by the industry, government or other credentialed agency/organization. Recommendations for beef-cattle care, quality assurance, handling and transport are only a fingertip away.

  4. Keep facilities properly maintained and equipment in good working order. For instance, hospital pens should be clean with food and water receptacles that are easy for sick and injured cattle to reach.

  5. Calf care is important. Procedures that are known to cause pain and distress should only be carried out by trained personnel. Castration, dehorning, hot or cold branding require special attention to timing, technique and low-stress handling to minimize traumatic effect. If a suitable low-stress, painless alternative (that's equally effective) becomes available, implement it.

  6. Have a protocol for timely culling to avoid debilitated non-ambulatory cattle. Never place a debilitated animal onto a transport vehicle if there's a prospect of the animal going down. There's no excuse for loading unfit cattle on a truck.

  7. Have a protocol for properly euthanizing cattle and a trained person on site capable of carrying out the procedure with no mistakes. After an animal is dispatched, pay attention to local laws and ordinances with respect to proper disposal and never leave dead livestock in public view. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners have guidelines for proper euthanasia methods.

  8. Have a plan for caring for cattle during weather extremes, natural disasters or other emergencies.

  9. Self-assess your operation. Body condition scoring, locomotion scoring, mud scoring and scoring of cattle-handling practices are a few of the tools to assess the condition of cattle, management practice and employee competencies. Your operation can only improve.

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Q: How can livestock operation owners do a better job of informing and educating the public and media to possibly combat some of the negative actions being taken by animal activists?

A: Over the years, numerous surveys have indicated farmers are held in higher esteem than other professions with knowledge of animal care. Start by being a good neighbor and contributing to the community in which you live. Be sure you're abiding by state, local or even federal mandates, be it animal care or environmental management of your property.

Listen carefully to what's being said and be sure to identify what the core issue is before you start talking. It makes all the difference in the world if someone believes you took the time to identify his/her concern.

If you espouse the care of animals as a top priority, know what best practice is and be able to talk about it, then be sure you actually practice it. Also, if you plan on public speaking, be sure you have training; some folks are naturals, others aren't.

Finally, don't go beyond what you know. Be willing to admit what you don't know. Be willing to contribute to finding solutions, then roll up the sleeves and implement the best you can.

What the public wants to know most is that the animals that went into their food supply lived and died well.

Kindra Gordon is a freelance writer based in Whitewood, SD.

Spotlight

Michigan Program

The Michigan State University Animal Behavior and Welfare Group (www.canr.msu.edu/animalwelfare) involves faculty from different disciplines and is engaged in a number of projects involving teaching, research and outreach with a focus on social responsibility in the food system.