Commitment, technology aid animal welfare

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 one fewer time per week, not replace an employee or not keep up with training to ensure protocols are followed.

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

At the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Conference last month, 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 then not manage those calves for optimal growth and performance.

"Aversive handling at a young age [also] can create problems for that heifer throughout her life cycle on a dairy," says Sandy Stokes Goff, with Stagecoach Consulting Services. "Negative experiences with human caretakers can establish fear in animals, making them difficult to handle."

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. Heifer calves average 82 lb. at birth while bull calves are 90+ lb. Birthing lighter weight heifer calves has reduced both dystocia and dead-on-arrival calves.

In western Kansas, calves are particularly vulnerable to respiratory diseases and tend to receive many vaccinations. The McCartys rely on nasal spray vaccines whenever possible to reduce needle sticks.

"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."