March 25 2015 08:00 AM

Do you know how your animals are being treated when you're not there? Direct, accountable supervision is a must.

The author is a large-herd veterinarian based in Jerome, Idaho.
dairyman looking athis cows

When "everyone" is responsible for animal welfare on the farm, in reality, no one is being held accountable. Take responsibility for animal care on your dairy through proper supervision.

Admiral Hyman Rickover is known as the Father of the Nuclear Navy. He is largely given credit for the fact that, despite the many nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers currently in the American fleet and their decades of use in both peacetime and war, there has never been a nuclear accident linked to the military.

On the civilian side, it is another story. Many of us are old enough to remember the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979. It was a terrifying time where the impending meltdown of a nuclear reactor threatened hundreds of thousands of people with disaster. The incident has negatively colored the nuclear power industry ever since.

The dairy industry has received a similar publicity "black eye" with the appearance and wide distribution of a few animal abuse videos. If unchecked, this trend will lead to unwelcome, officious oversight of dairy husbandry practices. Farmers are naturally asking themselves, how can this abuse, whether staged or not, continue to happen, and what can be done about it?

When the cat's away . . .
Admiral Rickover testified to congress after the Three Mile Island atomic near-disaster. He was asked, due to his vast experience with military nuclear power, how it could have been prevented. He summed up the solution in one word: Supervision. Proper, capable military supervision had prevented a nuclear mishap in the Navy, and he believed that applying a similar style of management would do the same in civilian nuclear power generation.

I feel that we can apply Rickover's lesson and advice to the issue of actual or perceived abuse of dairy cattle. The root cause of the problem, in my opinion, is largely summed up in the adage, "When the cat's away, the mice shall play." This failing has been true of human beings for centuries, and it is unlikely to change in the near future. As many of us can recall from grade school when an inexperienced substitute teacher was present, immature behavior and "horsing around" is infectious and can overwhelm self-restraint and good judgment.

Poor treatment of our livestock is directly related to a lack of capable, accountable supervision. I once filled in for a colleague at an unfamiliar farm. One morning, while waiting outside of the milking barn for the herdsman to arrive, I heard shouting inside. When I went to investigate, I saw a cow pusher treating milked cows in an inappropriate manner in an effort to get them to exit the parlor faster.

I immediately spoke to him about his behavior and then reported it to his employer. When I asked who was supposed to be supervising this crew, the answer was "everyone." As in many other areas of dairy herd management, such as heat detection or maternity pen oversight, when "everyone" is watching, in actuality, "no one" is.

Nuclear energy demands a zero tolerance for mishaps. In a similar way, we should have zero tolerance for animal mistreatment and poor welfare on our dairies. Lack of supervision not only engenders poor welfare, but it negatively affects the bottom line in numerous ways.

Rickover's admirable success in achieving foolproof oversight of a nuclear fleet was based on his understanding of human nature and his skills at administration. He recognized that people are fallible, but operating systems, based on adequate supervision, can be constructed that are infallible, that is, 100 percent reliable.

The admiral's method and philosophy was to recognize people with potential, then train them for the job at hand. He reasoned that people with already demonstrated ability in a particular field were scarce and already employed. Those with potential were more numerous.

Pick people with potential
There is a saying that the world is full of people with unrealized potential. If such people are recognized and adequately trained, these "diamonds in the rough" can become effective dairy team members and ensure the completion of desired tasks, such as the humane care of stock.

Areas on the dairy that demand proper supervision are numerous and include the milking parlor, maternity pen and calf raising facility. Otherwise, inadequate oversight breeds inconsistency and trouble. Supervision should be combined with quality control measures to produce consistent, measurable and satisfactory results. Effective supervision also entails accountability. Just as in the military, to maintain proper respect supervisors should avoid excessive familiarity with their subordinates. Their duty is to get the job done, not be someone's friend.

The supervisor of the milking crew should stress consistency in all things. As an example, one of the most common problems that I observe in parlors is drift from established routines. Dip, strip, wipe and apply is a common routine. If cows are always prepped in the correct order, it is effective at detecting and preventing mastitis and producing adequate teat stimulation time and let-down.

Cows should be prepared in the order abcd for step one (predipping), then abcd again for step two (stripping) and so on. One of the most common deviations from this is for milkers to proceed abcd for step one, but incorrectly dcba for two and so forth. This is easier on the milker but obviously creates a wide variation in contact time and lag between initial teat stimulation and machine attachment and contact time of predip disinfectant with the teat surface.

Lack of supervision in maternity pens can result in inconsistencies in the observation and intervention in calvings, resulting either in damaged animals that have not had enough time to dilate or dead calves through inattention and tardy intervention. Postcalving care, including the administration of sustained-release calcium boluses, may become erratic, resulting in milk fever and problems associated with subclinical hypocalcemia.

Supervision of welfare practices is multifold and includes the handling of down animals; moving cows for any purpose; the adequate provision of shelter, food and water; pain relief; and many additional tasks and responsibilities.

Can you do better?
A recent documentary on Admiral Rickover included an interview with former President Jimmy Carter. Carter was being considered for a Navy post under Rickover. The intimidating and quirky commander asked Carter what his rank had been at the Naval Academy, and the (future) president replied that he had been in the middle third out of 200.

Carter admitted that he felt he could have done better. Rickover asked: "Then why didn't you?" Carter confided that he has pondered the question ever since. I'd like to suggest that, in areas of your dairy where supervision is critical, including animal welfare, you also ask yourself, "Am I doing my best?"

This article appears on page 195 of the Mar 25, 2015 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.

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