Consumer perceptions (Proceedings)

Article

The agricultural community is an extremely small percent of the general population and much of that population lives in densely populated areas of the country. They draw their perceptions of food animal care from their experiences and perceptions about zoos, their own companion animals, and the visual stories presented electronically from opponents of the animal industry.

The agricultural community is an extremely small percent of the general population and much of that population lives in densely populated areas of the country. They draw their perceptions of food animal care from their experiences and perceptions about zoos, their own companion animals, and the visual stories presented electronically from opponents of the animal industry. While all other aspects of their urban life has been modified by technological change from the schools to the electronics in their life their perception seems to be that food production should be stuck someplace in the past, we usually refer to as the good old days.

This year the National Milk Producers Federation presented materials for Farmers Assuring Responsible Management; a nationwide, verifiable well-being program about the animal care. A quote from the materials states this; "The program aims to provide a consistent platform for animal well-being, which producers can use to evaluate their on-farm animal care practices." As the veterinarians that serve these dairies we should take note of the program that has been developed. We need to study the guiding principles and guidelines that have been presented so that we are familiar with the semantics that have been chosen, but more important will be our application of these principles and guidelines to the dairies we serve on a regular basis so we can help find the management changes that benefit the care and will match the semantics of the certification process.

The program is in its educational phase which will be followed by an on-farm evaluation every three years. Herds will be selected from this pool of evaluated herds for a 3rd party certification. The full text can be accessed at the www.nationaldairyfarm.com website. While this is a voluntary program, participation may be mandated in order to sell milk to some processors that are currently assuming responsibility for implementing this program. While the program is to certify the animal care practices on a dairy; the first questions in the herd evaluation are about the VCPR, SOPs, personnel training and record keeping making our discussion of written treatment protocols, accountability of welfare, drug usage, and management practices, supervision of drug usage, production medicine development, developing the sufficient knowledge needed for the VCPR, and utilization of our fertility programs for supervision of drug usage especially timely.

Areas designated in the manual that will be evaluated are:

     • Management – SOPs, training, and record keeping

     • Newborn calves

     • Nutrition

     • Animal health

     • Environment and facilities

     • Handling, moving, and transportation

     • Special-needs animals

     • Dairy beef

This is too long a list to think that all the risk factors in a management plan could be discussed in a periodic 2nd party evaluation. Our profession has a clear opportunity to prepare our dairies by knowing the language of the evaluation and using the regular supervision of treated animals to locate areas that could be modified and discussing the appropriate action. There is an opportunity or perhaps an obligation to study this program in detail and do a mini evaluation each time we are doing supervision of drug usage on a management group to help find areas that need action. Especially when the cows have demonstrated with their health records there is opportunity to improve the health.

From a practical stand point this diversity of management planning needs to have the kind of repetitive time commitment that matches regular supervision of treated animals and discussions of the management aspects of the herd at a timely basis that we can do as part of the fertility program. As we are doing our work we can accomplish preparation for the certification as a by-product with no additional effort.

The perceptions our consumers have about how animals are managed was also the subject of a recent consumer survey. The consumer awareness of our management practices and their confidence in the food products revealed several interesting points. Consumers trust farmers, but they are not sure modern agriculture is farming. They trust veterinarians but they didn't know that food animal veterinarians existed.

The survey of urban consumers asked them to quantify:

     • Their awareness of how farm animals were raised

     • Their confidence in wholesomeness of food

     • Their confidence in food safety

     • Their confidence in food quality

     • Their knowledge of vaccination and antibiotics usage

After scoring their initial quantified responses, this four segment informational piece was delivered to the consumers:

     • Cows are raised by a team of people committed to the animals' health and creating wholesome, high quality food for consumers. From the beginning of cows' lives, veterinarians have a very important role in overseeing their health. As a part of their care, vaccines are oftentimes administered to cows to protect them from various illnesses.

     • As with any animal or human, cows can sometimes get sick over the course of their lives. In these situations, FDA-approved medicines, like antibiotics, are used to treat sick dairy cows under the supervision of licensed veterinarians.

     • If an antibiotic is administered to help a sick cow, then that cow's milk is not allowed to enter the food supply until the antibiotic has sufficiently cleared the animal's system. During this "withholding period", the cow's milk is discarded. The withholding period, which is established by the FDA for each approved antibiotic, ensures that the antibiotic does not end up in the milk and dairy products found in grocery stores and markets where you make milk and dairy purchases.

     • There is also an extensive testing system in place to ensure that no traces of antibiotics are in milk and dairy products. For instance, every load of milk sold by a dairy producer is tested multiple times for traces of antibiotics as established and overseen by state and government agencies. If their dairy products, including milk, test positive for any traces of antibiotics, these products are destroyed and the offending dairy producers are faced with steep fines.

This small amount of information raised the scores for each of the questions asked of them. The impact of even a modest amount of education about how food animal care is managed demonstrates how important that it is that the consumer understands what modern agriculture is. We do have to make certain these are not words on a paper, but that we have confidence that the producers we hold the VCPR for are accomplishing the work that raises the confidence in food safety and quality and are in agreement with the care of dairy cows.

That presents a pretty significant challenge. The animal care story needs to be told so that consumers can understand that the care of animals meets their standards of care. The veterinarian role also needs to be told. The need is pressing so we need to start now.

The dairy industry has changed over time. These changes have been very positive for the cows by improving their comfort, their welfare, their nutrition, and of course their productivity. Because the majority of people have nothing to reference this to we will do well to consider the language that will be understood and the consumers desire that the cows are cared for in a manner satisfactory to them.

We need to plan the story we want to tell. For example how would you edit these?

     • The look of the facility has changed. Instead of a barn, silo, and cow yard we built a roof over the cow yard so the cows are now housed and fed in a free stall barn with more comfortable beds than they were in before and they are now protected from the elements.

     • Rationing is now by total mixed rations (TMR) which are similar to a casserole or the commercially available dog and cat foods. TMRs are balanced to the stage of lactation or life cycle meeting the cows' nutritional requirements. The over and under conditioning is monitored regularly as a body condition scoring.

     • Dairies have daily screening for health issue with special attention to the periods when the need to detect health conditions is guaranteed such as the cow that just gave birth to a calf and that new born calf until it is weaned.

     • Use of records could allow these statements to be made:

           o There is veterinarian supervision of the drug usage and health care with emphasis on animal welfare using the epidemiology of the condition to plan prevention

           o SOPs are in place for early detection of cases while they are mild

           o Drug usage is controlled by written protocols

           o The severely sick and treatment failures are identified and managed professionally

                oJudicious use of drugs is documented.

These statements are important to our consumers. They are actually very easy to achieve and not by making a statement, but in a tangible transparent manner with a total cow care veterinary program with written protocols, records of treatment that assures early detection of mild cases, with judicious use of antibiotics resulting in successful treatment.

Conclusion

     • FARM Animal Care certification program has been introduced and our role is significant.

     • A recent survey of our urban consumer demonstrates that they need to hear the animal care story in their own language and understand the level of veterinary involvement in herds with a valid VCPR

     • We need to be able to tell the diversity of dairy management styles without bias and incorporate our involvement in each.

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