In 2008 two brothers who farm near Ste. Anne built a new barn to replace the one their father erected in the 1960s.
His was “a Cadillac barn” and the best of the best for its time, but by the mid-2000s times had changed.
It wasn’t just a robotic milking system for their 220 cows that brought Skyline Dairy into a modern era, says David Wiens, who farms with his brother Charles.
This was a barn built with comfort foremost in mind.
“When we were planning and designing the barn we put a lot of care and attention into focusing on animal comfort,” he told a recent conference on animal welfare. Rubberized flooring replaced concrete. Brushes were installed so the cows could groom. An automated calf feeder replaced the pails they’d previously used.
Those and other upgrades were not viewed “as luxuries,” said Wiens. “They are important features in any barn whose owner is serious about top-quality animal care.”
But milk producers don’t have to build a new barn to prove it matters to them too. Dairy farmers right across Canada now participate in a program that ensures they’re held to the highest standards for animal care, Wiens told the inaugural One Welfare conference September 27.
The program is Dairy Farmers of Canada’s proAction initiative, a national assurance program with six components including one devoted specifically to animal care. DFC has been working with the National Farm Animal Care Council since 2013 to pilot the animal care component.
The animal care assessments are based on the requirements of the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle published in 2009, and involve Holstein Canada doing third-party assessor visits to farms to score herd health and welfare.
Holstein Canada will conduct the animal health assessments, evaluating and scoring animals based on body condition, hock, knee and neck injuries and lameness. It will assess more than 300,000 cows on farms across the country in benchmarking exercises now underway.
The animal care requirements will be formally added to the existing Food Safety (CQM) validation in September 2017.
Wiens said that initially, there was apprehension expressed about this component of proAction. It sprang from animal welfare simply being a sensitive subject, and farmers initially wondered what direction this might be heading.
“They were wondering, ‘Is this going to somehow show that I’ve not been living up to expectations?’” Wiens said. “But when we started getting into the details about what was being measured and how it was being measured, farmers were much more relaxed. It was, ‘OK, I’m doing this already, this makes sense.’”
One of the especially interesting aspects of the program has been the ‘cow signals’ workshops offered, Wiens said. That’s involved bringing in animal welfare experts to help farmers identify best practices for cow comfort.
Farmers now see merit in a program not only for stricter enforcement for on-farm animal welfare practices but enabling their sector to tell a credible animal care story.
“We care about our animals and we look after our animals,” Wiens said.
“We’re not just saying this. We have a code of practice, but by this assessment through proAction we’re actually showing how we are complying with the codes of practice. There are scores to prove it.”
Wiens described the initiative at a conference attended by medical professionals, public health inspectors and agricultural industry representatives. The three-day conference included international speakers citing a growing body of research showing links between human well-being and animal welfare.
The Canadian dairy industry’s commitment to animal welfare is about showing Canadians that farmers care as much about animal welfare as the general public, Wiens said.
“We know that it’s important to Canadians that animals are looked after and there has to be a high degree of stewardship involved in the care of animals. We share those values.”