Herd Health & Welfare: A Response
We would like to respond to Dr. Laura Zehnder Jones’ comments on the article “Food Animal Vets Dispute Abuse Charges” [February 2010].
One overarching concern seems to be about the farm size, business orientation and business relationships of many of today’s operations. We do not believe it is disingenuous to note that the majority of farms are family owned. Trends in business in recent decades have been toward larger entities regardless of whether the subject is retail businesses such as the shopping supercenters, the pharmaceutical industry, railroads or manufacturing. Animal agriculture has experienced these same trends. These trends reflect that increased scale often increases efficiency. In the face of an increasing population and reduced land mass resources, becoming more efficient has become a requirement for farm survival.
It is common to observe changes in business structure and business processes as farms increase in size. Frequently, more formal, legal business relationships come into existence, which make possible shared ownership and management responsibilities among close relatives and across several generations. These larger farms are capital intensive and require extensive use of risk-management tools such as crop insurance, hedging and contracts to secure inputs and sale of production. Interestingly, these changes have often resulted in farmers being much more involved with processors and customers than they were several decades ago. Through cooperatives, trade associations, grocers and others, they are engaged in animal care, animal welfare and environmental concerns. Farmers recognize that the customer is determining the product value, product demand and sustainability of the businesses. Sustainability in animal agriculture, as in any business, includes resource stewardship, customer care and the ability to make a profit.
To this end, numerous steps have been taken to advance the well-being of animals from the farm to the consumer. The Professional Animal Auditors Certification Organization was established in 2004 to appropriately train auditors performing in third-party audits of animal handling and care in various settings. The initial audits are based on work of Dr. Temple Grandin and focus on processing plants. Currently, all animal industries have been and continue to develop care programs for animals on the farm, which include defined assessments and in most cases third-party verification audits. These programs will both enhance and verify the care being afforded animals that are raised for food on modern livestock operations and are a logical step in the transition from animal agriculture of yesterday to that of today and tomorrow.
Confinement operations are another focus of discomfort for many consumers and those unfamiliar with modern agriculture. It must be noted that confinement has been a standard of care used for centuries wherever it was too hot, too cold or too wet for the welfare of the animals.
Pastoral agriculture has an important and sometimes predominate role in many areas where environmental conditions permit. In transitional geographies, pasture management becomes seasonal, sometimes requiring increased capital as both winter and summer facilities are needed. It is doubtful that exclusive adoption of pastoral, polycultural practices can ever substantially supply the food needs of large population centers. Confinement of animals then becomes necessary to protect the animals and their surrounding environment.
Confinement operations do enhance efficiency, which has advantages to the population by being more effective in resource, waste and environmental management. Being able to provide for a more comfortable environment during times of both seasonal and regional weather extremes is of significant value in animal well-being. Further, protection from predation, parasites and certain virulent infectious diseases is a measurable benefit available to animals raised for food in well-designed confinement systems. As with other portions of animal care, providing for the expression of natural behavior is in a continual phase of developing and updating housing systems.
Herd health programs are a combination of preventive medicine programs and disease detection, eradication, surveillance and treatment systems. The former is designed to reduce the overall incidence of preventable diseases to the maximum extent possible. Systems to detect disease in individual animals within a large operation continue to be improved. Specific enhancements that are available include separate housing for high-risk and special-needs animals as well as electronic tools to detect early temperature and behavioral changes, which may signal disease even before the onset of standard clinical signs. Disease protocols are continually evaluated for success, allowing for progressive improvement in therapeutic interventions when disease occurs in the face of effective preventive medicine programs.
Advances in animal and veterinary science coupled with the increasing scale and sustainability in livestock production systems has allowed the placement within herds of highly trained health care personnel who are closely linked to veterinarians, nutritionists, pathologists, diagnostic facilities, etc. We believe that the health of and delivery of veterinary care to individual animals has improved as farms have become more able to access the specialized expertise that is often more affordable for larger operations.
The most important item in the letter from Dr. Jones that we will take issue with is the role of the Humane Society of the United States in animal agriculture. HSUS has a stated goal of eradicating modern agriculture with an active campaign against large operations and an agenda of reducing to a minimum all animal use. It is our opinion that when moral posturing is replaced by an honest assessment of societal needs, options and preferences, the outcome will be new insights that enhance both animal care and the human population that consumes animal products. It also is our position that the people who should be assessing the data on the topic of animal care are veterinarians, animal scientists and other stakeholders with substantial training and experience in animal biology and husbandry.
We thank Veterinary Practice News for this opportunity to respond and inform about the good things that are happening in modern animal agriculture. Those involved in today’s animal agriculture do raise animals for food, and we consider it a moral imperative that those animals receive the best care possible.
• Rodney Baker, DVM, president of American Association of Swine Veterinarians
• Vickie Cooper, DVM, MS, Ph.D., senior clinician at Iowa State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory
• D. Scott McVey, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVM, University of Nebraska professor
• Gatz Riddell Jr., DVM, executive vice president of American Association of Bovine Practitioners
• Leon D. Weaver, DVM, owner of Bridgewater LLC dairy farm