They say the first step in solving a problem is recognizing you have one. I received a lot of comments a few weeks ago following publication of my piece on an undercover activist’s video  depicting abuse of young dairy calves on a Colorado calf growing farm. This week, another video surfaced; this one from a pig operation in Oklahoma.
The comments I received regarding the Colorado case took me to task for understating the problem, and not calling out those where the problems are disproportionately directed from. Their point was simple – almost all of these revelations of abuse come from very specific entities within our industry, the first being the dairy industry. And we’re doing everyone a disservice by not calling a spade a spade and dealing directly with the heart of the problem.
I’ll admit that their words stung a little bit because I know they’re right. The problem with being a true fan of this industry and an active participant in it is my tendency to not want to offend anyone. I hate painting any group with too broad of a brush because the majority within that group are usually very good people with good motives.
As I’ve said, the vast majority of producers are great people, but the reality is that a hugely disproportionate number of problems associated with downer cows, drug residues, and animal welfare in general can be associated with the dairy industry. Perhaps it’s because of that sector’s reliance on hired labor, part of which doesn’t share the animal husbandry ethic. Perhaps it can be explained by the almost corporate or assembly-line approach that characterizes that industry.
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Regardless of the reasons, the fact is that the ethos we hold so dear regarding animal welfare in the cow-calf industry just isn’t as strong in the dairy industry. We’ve seen similar breakdowns in the poultry and pork industry, where employees aren’t vested in the animal production system in the same way that we typically see in cow-calf production .
The bottom line is that while there’s nothing inherently wrong with large-scale animal production, the system is far more likely to break down when workers are employed who don’t inherently share the love of animals and don’t have a vested interest in an operation from an ownership, profit, or value standpoint. It’s a failure of management , a failure of supervision, and a failure of education.
Some of these operations are failing in replicating the mindset, values and culture that have always been the foundation of our industry. Thus, it’s no surprise that the other problems we’ve seen regarding animal abuse  are primarily from situations that reflect this same dynamic, whether it’s in sale barns, feedyards, etc.
As an industry, we must embrace the fact that this is a nexus – a point where animal welfare issues tend to arise. This is where our industry has occasionally failed. I’ve especially been guilty of standing up for the overwhelming majority of producers who do a great job, and I’ve failed to recognize that our industry responsibility is to uphold a zero-tolerance  policy.
These instances of abuse are unacceptable and unworthy of such a great industry as ours. Ethics and morals, as well as economics, dictate that animal welfare should be every producer’s top priority. Failing to address these isolated problems, regardless of how rare they are, jeopardizes our entire industry.
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