If Science Suggests We Should Change …

The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.

As long as we raise animals for food there will be concerns, and conflicts, over animal welfare. Some people will continue to oppose all animal agriculture while promoting a vegetarian lifestyle, but most just want assurances that producers, processors, truckers and veterinarians treat animals humanely throughout the production process.

Perfection might be an unattainable goal, but if we pursue continuous improvement, we, and most of the public, will feel good about animal agriculture now and moving forward.

Some aspects of animal husbandry are intuitive, but in many cases, we need scientific evidence to guide decisions, develop best practices and support our positions in the court of public opinion.

Sometimes science supports our position, but the public does not. Some other times, science supports changes we don’t really want to make, but should. Occasionally, the public, industry and scientific evidence find themselves in agreement, allowing for an easy transition.

Dairy veterinarian and past AABP president Mark Thomas wrote a column for Dairy Herd Management magazine a while back titled “Without Science, We Have No Standing.” In his column, Thomas notes that producers or veterinarians might not always agree with calls for changes in production practices. “But if data from well-conducted, peer-reviewed studies exist, we must use the facts,” he says.

For an example, he cites the decision from the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and the FARM program to shift the deadline for discontinuing tail docking of dairy cows from 2022 to Jan. 1, 2017. Retailers and consumers wanted the change, and in this case, scientific evidence supported the ban. The American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) already had a long-standing position statement not supporting tail docking unless medically necessary. So, while some producers resist the change, it has fallen on veterinarians to help their clients adapt, and manage their herds in ways that protect milk quality and animal welfare without tail docking.

Likewise, some producers might balk at the added expense or inconvenience of using pain management for procedures such as castration and dehorning. With your help though, they’ll realize they can adapt and that ultimately, what’s good for the animal is good for the farmer.

Where science supports existing practices, we need to call on the evidence to defend those practices and educate the public whenever possible. That process is challenging, especially given today’s non-ag public, but it can be done. An urban visitor to a farm for example, might perceive something as ubiquitous as a squeeze chute as cruel or abusive. Once they learn its purposes – calming the animal while reducing the risk of injury to animal or worker – their perception probably changes.

When we’re right, we should take a stand. If we’re wrong, we’ll need to learn to adapt.