PULLMAN, Wash. – Educators at Washington State University are helping dairy farmers move their cows safely and humanely, thanks to a new training program.
The Department of Animal Sciences partnered with animal handling specialist Don Höglund to teach dairy producers and students safe handling methods to meet higher national standards.
“The public is really concerned about human-animal interaction,” said Höglund, an associate professor with the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University who heads a stock handling program.
“Consumers are increasingly demanding transparency in their food systems, with humane treatment of livestock a big concern,” he said. “Milk buyers and sellers are taking note and instituting welfare standards for dairies.”
Training sessions ongoing
In Washington, nearly every dairy must meet animal welfare guidelines set by the National Milk Producers Federation in order to sell milk. The challenge, said Amber Adams Progar, a WSU dairy management specialist, is that guidelines only go so far.
“The missing piece is education,” she said. “Producers need hands-on training to truly understand how to apply the standards.”
To provide that experience, Höglund led a February seminar at TJ Veenacres Farm in Lynden, Wash., explaining animal handling and behavior to 20 farmers and veterinarians with support from the Washington Dairy Federation.
Adams Progar is organizing more on-farm seminars to train both students and farmers. To learn more or get involved, contact her at 509-335-0673 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Calm eases stress, boosts economic gain
Höglund led farmers into pens of freshly weaned calves, showing participants how to train the young bovines to safely move as a herd with as little human-created stress as possible.
“With little experience, farmers listened, went into the pen and worked as a team,” using body movements, position and gentle stimulus to control the calves, said Adams Progar. “It opened people’s minds!”
“I teach people how to lower the energy at exactly the right time,” Höglund said.
“Low-energy handling teaches handlers and animals to walk to the destination,” ensuring both animals and employees are safer.
“Research has shown that poor handling can cause a stress response in cows,” said Adams Progar. Stress hormones decrease milk production and can affect the immune system, making cows more susceptible to disease. “Both consequences lead to economic losses,” she said.
Dairy hosts sought
“Animals in low-stress environments are calmer, produce better and feel happier,” said Rolf Veening, co-owner of Veenacres Farm and host of the February workshop. Dairy farmers who gain handling knowledge aren’t just improving their farms’ bottom line, “they’re being more responsive to the consumer,” he added.
More farmer training workshops are planned for the summer. Adams Progar is seeking dairy producers to take part and, crucially, host workshops. There is no substitute for a working farm for learning handling techniques, she said.
“Training needs to be hands-on,” she said, thanking Veening for hosting the first session. “This is going to open the door to more involvement and better handling practices.”