It was an uncomfortable moment for producers at the annual Manitoba Dairy Conference, held in Winnipeg earlier this month.
It was an image of downer cows, about to be shot at an American slaughter plant, displayed during a presentation by Jennifer Walker to bring home the message that just because something has become routine, doesn’t make it good animal welfare.
“We have to understand, the animals we send to slaughter are a direct reflection of our care and compassion,” she said, adding the photo wasn’t taken in secret. The veterinarian and director of dairy stewardship for the U.S.-based Dean Foods snapped the photos in the open, with staff watching. No one objected, she said.
“They told me that this was an average cull cow day. Two of the seven cows that arrived fell down on the trailer, two fell down while getting off the trailer, one more was so skinny and weak she fell down later while trying to navigate the system,” said Walker. “All five of these were perfectly and humanely handled by staff at the slaughterhouse; all five of them should have never been put on the trailer to begin with.”
While Canadian dairy producers have largely been spared the kind of undercover animal abuse videos plaguing producers south of the border — with the exception of Chilliwack Cattle Sales in 2014 — the veterinarian stressed that animal welfare must meet consumers’ and processors’ expectations, even if the details are difficult to define.
Farmers are no stranger to making ethical decisions, but she stressed they need to recognize that those decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. While cost, profit and production are vital considerations, so is animal welfare and public opinion.
“When it comes to animal welfare and animal health, and understanding what our consumers and customers want, we need to remember it is a matter of perspective,” she said. “So what you might rank as a dairy farmer as your top concern, is going to be different than a customer.”
Giving the example of a farmer with a top-producing cow that’s going on three good legs, she painted a picture of a difficult decision that can’t — at the end of the day — be about money.
“How long does she have to walk around in pain until you sell her? And how miserable is that journey to the sales barn and then to the slaughterhouse?” Walker asked. “And if she gets there and has to be euthanized on the trailer because she can’t actually get up, can we look consumers in the eye and say we’ve done the right thing?
“We have to come to terms with the fact that science can only tell us what we can do; what we’re dealing with today is questions about what we should do,” she said.
Long gone are the days when producers could justify practices on scientific terms, or by relying on efficiency.
Reiterating the mantra that cows must be happy and healthy if production is high, is a failure in the eyes of consumers. Not only does it diminish consumer trust, she said, it pushes consumers to seek information from alternate sources, such as Mercy for Animals or PETA.
“What consumers expect is that we take good care of our cows,” Walker said, and that includes producers acknowledging that their animals have emotional or mental needs, as well as physical ones.
It’s not an idea that’s particularly popular with some producers.
“I hear it all the time, again and again, we have to feed the world, there’s going to be nine billion people… we’re going to have to increase food production by 70 per cent, and you want me to stop and worry about my cows’ feelings? Are you kidding me?” said Walker.
But she added that good animal welfare, which Walker roughly defines as animals having a life worth living and a comfortable death, has many real benefits for producers to consider.
Besides the all-important need to maintain social licence and consumer trust, healthy and happy animals do produce more and are more resistant to disease, requiring less medical interventions, and fewer antibiotics. They react more predictably during research, in addition to providing better, more profitable carcasses when all is said and done.
No one expects cows to be sleeping at the foot of the bed, however, farm animals are being extended types of consideration that are new to agriculture. And that consideration is being fuelled by some marketing trends, such as not labelling meat products as animal. Where consumers might once have gone to the grocer to pick up a chicken, it’s now labelled a broiler. Beef and pork are labelled by cut.
“So while we have removed the animal from the food we eat, we have simultaneously elevated the animals in our lives, for many, cats and dogs are treated like members of the family. In many cases animal companions have really become the primary, sometimes, only stable form of companionship,” she said.
So it’s not that the ethics around the treatment of animals has changed, it’s that the number of animals those considerations are extended to has been expanded.
“I argue that our ethics aren’t changing, not at all, simply put, the golden rule is still the golden rule. What has changed is to whom we extend consideration of the golden rule to… our circle of caring is expanding,” said Walker.
And if that circle has expanded for consumers, it must also expand for farmers, she added.