April 14, 2016

Using Commitment, Technology to Aid Animal Welfare

 |  By: Dairy Talk

Ensuring animals are well treated and well cared for is, or at least should be, the goal of every dairy farmer. Even in times of economic stress, animal care cannot be comprised.

That should go without saying, but when times get financially stressed, it’s sometimes tempting to take shortcuts: Maybe bed once less time per week, not replace an employee or not keep up with training and re-training to ensure protocols are being followed.

But doing so likely will create more problems than it avoids. Stressed animals or short cuts in protocols will inevitably lead to more acute or chronic health issues, higher cull rates and lower productivity.

At the April 11-13 Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Conference in Madison, Wis., speaker after speaker pointed out the need for focused management to keep calves on track to reach their genetic potential. It makes little sense to use high value semen and then not manage those calves from birth to breeding to calving for optimal growth and performance.

“Aversive handling at young age [also] can create problems for that heifer throughout her life cycle on a dairy,” says Sandra Stokes Goff, with Stagecoach Consulting Services. “Negative experiences with human caretakers can establish fear in animals, making them difficult to handle. This will be intensified as the heifer grows to age of calving and lactation, where she will be expected to go through a parlor at least twice each day….

Using Technology

One operation that has gone all-in on animal care is McCarty Family Dairy, based in Rexford, Kan. The McCartys milk about 8,500 cows on four dairies and supply milk to Dannon Yogurt in an exclusive contract arrangement. As such, the McCartys are highly visible and need to demonstrate they go above and beyond even industry standards in their animal care practices.

That starts with worker training on day one of employment. New workers must sign an agreement showing they have undergone the training, understood it and are subject to immediate dismissal for any ill treatment of cattle.

McCarty Dairies also have video cameras positioned around each of their facilities. They allow a third party vendor to randomly access the video to watch for any ill treatment. “The vendor has never caught one of our employees mistreating animals, but there was one employee who was misusing equipment,” says Ken McCarty. The employee was dismissed because his use of the equipment potentially endangered himself, other employees and cattle, he says.

The McCartys have also started using primarily sexed semen on their virgin heifers.  “Ninety five percent of our heifers conceive to sexed semen,” Ken says.

Heifer calves average 82 lb. at birth while bull calves are 90 lb. plus. Birthing the lighter weight heifer calves has reduced both dystocia problems and dead-on-arrival calves when the heifers freshen.

In western Kansas, with its high winds, dust and weather extremes, calves are particularly vulnerable to respiratory diseases. That requires calves receive a lot vaccinations. To reduce needle sticks, the McCartys rely on nasal spray vaccines whenever possible.

The McCartys are a prime example of how the owners’ commitment to animal care ensures it will happen. “Animal welfare is truly dependent on the owner’s values and attitudes; it is not related to the size of the facility, as social media tends to portray,” Goff says.

“The primary resource needed to implement an animal welfare program is management commitment—not any different than any other successful business endeavor.”