Animal welfare is one of those things that often falls into the realm of sex, politics and religion. It’s an emotionally-charged topic at the best of times and when standards need to be set, conflict is inevitable. Consider this:
“Rear the calf in safety away from the herd so it can lead a healthy life”
“Take the calf from its mother so farmers can steal the milk”
Both statements put the calf first, yes, but advocate diametrically-opposed practices. Vets say science supports the hand-rearing of calves, animal rights bodies say that’s immoral. So, what’s a farmer to do? At the moment, farmers have a lot of freedom to do whatever we think is right, so long as the calf’s healthy.
But animal welfare is increasingly becoming a political hot potato as vocal lobby groups demand more of a say in, and greater scrutiny of, farming practices. We farmers can’t stick our heads in the sand and hope this will all go away.
And, to be frank, many of the farmers I’ve discussed the issue with would like to see our representatives raise the bar to match the standards almost all of us meet every day. Few choose farming as a career just for the money (that concept never fails to raise a chuckle) – most do it because we love being outdoors with the animals. Why should we let a few rotten apples bring us all down?
But who decides what those standards should be? The dairy community? Well, no, we can’t do it by ourselves because external input is important to progress. The attitudes of the wider community have to be part of the decision-making process.
The thorny question really is: who represents the views of the wider community? Neilson research presented by Courtney Sullivan at the Australian Dairy Conference a couple of years ago showed that most Australians have little knowledge of where their food comes from, that they are aware of their ignorance and that, to put it bluntly, ignorance is bliss. Price was the main driver. Quality was taken for granted.
Ironically, this is a view that is eschewed by farmers and animal welfare bodies alike. It probably comes about because we farmers are trusted to do the right thing – a perception that some animal welfare activists would like to change.
Farmers have the opportunity to be proactive and show the good faith of the community is deserved. Why on earth not?
PS: If you want to know more about how we rear our calves and why, the answers are here on the Milk Maid Marian blog.