"A few special interest groups have managed to hi-jack the term ‘animal welfare' and managed to create the illusion that they are the animal welfare experts", said Jennifer Walker, D.V.M., at the Minnesota Dairy Health Conference last week. "I think that it is time that we re-gain ownership of the term and become the welfare advocates and experts the public expects us to be."

The one-time veterinarian practitioner serves as director of Dairy Stewardship, a new position developed by Dean Foods. In her capacity, Walker works with retailers who handle Dean Foods' products and their customers. She also works with producers who ship directly to Dean plants, as well as representatives of dairy co-ops from which Dean Foods buys milk.

According to Dr. Walker, veterinarians, animal scientists, and farmers are perfectly positioned to assume the role of animal welfare authorities. "Our training and basic understanding of animal care is a great foundation, but there is more to learn. Understanding the complete picture of what makes for good animal welfare is the first step." We can't defend our practices by talking about pounds of milk or pounds of gain. "That makes us sound disingenuous when it comes to care of our cattle."

Walker talked about three categories of animal care. The first was outright abuse and neglect which she pointed out as being unethical behavior that was completely unacceptable. Walker felt sure that there are more animal abuse videos that animal welfare activists can and will release. For this reason, she said that we must assure consumers that we are doing the right thing as an industry . . . and we must be able to prove it.

That leads to the second category of animal care . . . meeting social expectations. It is doing a good job. "We do the best we possibly can to provide good animal welfare and produce milk of the highest quality." Doing this is necessary to maintain our "social license" to care for our cattle, said Walker.

"We're doing our best." That is what consumers want to know about - how we care for our livestock, said Walker. "And we need to educate consumers about the challenges we face," she added. Machinery can break down. Storms can interfere with farm operations. Consumers need to understand that these are some of the challenges we face and why everything isn't always perfect. Nevertheless, they need to feel confident that we are doing our best when it comes to taking care of our cattle.

The third approach to animal care is one intended to serve niche markets with value-added products. This might include especially "green" approaches to milk and meat production or other practices that involve a certain type of animal care or farming.

Dean Foods is using the F.A.R.M. (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program developed by the National Milk Producers Federation as the framework for its own farm audits. Also, many of the co-operatives supplying milk to Dean are using that voluntary program. When asked about any welfare problems that surface regularly, Walker said that the incidence of lameness in dairy herds is something that needs to be addressed.

Like many problems, the dairy industry's issue with lameness didn't happen overnight. It was a matter of abnormal becoming normal, said Walker, and sometimes that's hard for the people closest to cows to see. That's where a program such as F.A.R.M. can help. A fresh set of eyes looking at these issues will be the first step in helping farms identify whether they have a problem. Once we see where a farm needs a little help, we can start working on how to improve the situation.