The animal-welfare issue is moving fast – and will only move faster in the future.

Dr. Nigel Cook, veterinarian, likened it to a sleek bullet-train. He pointed to the current number of animal-activist organizations – as well as how animal-welfare-assurance programs have been developed to address animal-health and wellbeing standards.

Cook is the chair of the Department of Medical Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Jennifer Van Os is the assistant professor of dairy science at UW-Madison. The two considered what lies ahead for animal welfare, speaking at the Professional Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin’s annual business conference.

A video exposé of mistreatment of dairy cows in 2008 by the Humane Society of the United States has since had enormous impact on the handling of cows, Cook said.

The Humane Society of the United States stated, “(it) proved to be a watershed, creating massive awareness of cruelty to farm animals, propelling enactment of laws to protect them.”

Many animal-advocacy organizations are well-intended but have anti-agriculture agendas, Cook said. Organizations put pressure on food companies with well-known brand names. They do so through social-media channels or by directly confronting boards of directors and stakeholders.

To address legitimate concerns and take a standards-based approach at the farm level, programs such as the National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management program – FARM – have been launched. Established in 2009, FARM is supported by several dairy cooperatives and dairy-food processors. The program’s standards for dairy farms are revised every three years to reflect current science and best-management practices.

Standards, rationale and accountability measures are reviewed and revised by the program’s technical-writing group and by the National Milk Producers Federation’s Animal Health and Well-Being Committee. The document is then open for public comment. The public-comment period for the most recent version – Version 4.0 – ended March 31. The document will then be presented to the National Milk Producers Federation’s board of directors, before the finalized version takes effect in January 2020. The program is currently operating using version 3.0.

At the PDPW conference Cook and Van Os also discussed continuous-improvement plans and mandatory-correction-action plans in FARM Version 4.0, which can be downloaded at the program’s website. The new version will have a greater emphasis on training, Cook said.

While not in the current round of changes, it’s expected there will be more group-penning of pre-weaned calves. Of U.S. dairy farms 30 percent already provide pair or group pens, and social raising of calves is becoming more common, Van Os said. There’s been a significant amount of research indicating that raising calves in pairs results in greater solid-feed intake and weight gain as well as less aggressiveness and improved cognitive development. Animals raised in pairs or groups are better equipped to learn new situations and are more adaptable to new feed rations. That may be particularly beneficial at weaning time, she said.

Farms that aren’t equipped for group housing may find other ways to house calves together, such as pushing calf hutches together side-by-side and placing fencing around the two hutches.

The use of brushes to allow cows to groom themselves also is likely to become more commonly used in the future, Van Os said. She cited a study by Emilie McConnachie, a student researcher at the University of British Columbia. Cows on pasture rub themselves on trees and fence posts as part of grooming behavior. But in barns they’re unable to find as many appropriate surfaces; automatic brushes can be used as a substitute. Rubbing helps to remove dirt, as well as insects and feces. In her research study McConnachie found that cows would willingly expend energy to push an increasingly weighted gate to access an automated mechanical brush. The study was published in the August 2018 edition of “Biology Letters.”

Cook told the PDPW conference audience, “The animal-welfare train isn’t going to slow down. It’s going to keep going faster and you’re going to need to be onboard.”

Visit nationaldairyfarm.com to download the proposed National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management Version 4.0 and for more information.

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Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin. Email lgrooms@madison.com to contact her.