Who should a farmer look to when it comes to animal welfare?

As a dairy farmer, I’m more focused on giving our cows optimal wellbeing rather than thinking about their slaughter but Tammi Jonas’ thought-provoking post brought home that everyone has a different view of ethical farming. Here are just a few:

    • vegans prefer not to “exploit” animals at all
    • others say it’s okay to farm so long as the animals are never killed
    • others that the animals are killed in the paddock
    • others that animals can be sent to abattoir, so long as they are stunned
    • and many Australians simply do not care to know and just want good quality food at an affordable price

None of these positions is without potentially horrible consequences worthy of a secretly-filmed expose. I’ve never understood the vegan one, which must leave the animals to the tender care of mother nature: drought, floods, fires, parasites and all. I’m yet to see an animal on a wildlife documentary have what I’d call a humane death.

If, on the other hand, the ideal is to keep all the animals until they die of old age in the care of vets administering palliative doses of morphine, I can’t see how the planet has the capacity to support all these retiring animals.

Killing animals in the paddock could theoretically be done if there was sufficient demand to spawn a whole new industry. The consequences would be huge but would certainly involve extra costs currently not acceptable to mainstream Australia, necessitate a lot of small mobile and therefore more difficult to monitor operators, and leave a very large environmental footprint – the refrigeration and marketing costs would be substantial.

The last two positions are where we’re currently at.

So, where do I stand? Well, I think we should “humanise” Mother Nature wherever possible. In nature, animals eat other animals and they pick off the weak first. This means the animals remaining make the greatest contribution to the planet and it also relieves some suffering. The way that’s done is pretty horrid though. I would not want to be eaten alive by a lion or die the slow, dreadful death brought about by lameness, starvation or parasites. I would rather be stunned and euthanased in a millisecond.

For these reasons, I am happy as a farmer that, so long as our animals are strong enough to make the journey without undue stress and so long as they are treated with care and respect along the way, I am making the right choice sending them to market. And this is why I was appalled by the abuse meted out in an abattoir and relieved that it has now been closed. It’s not just about farm ethics – as Tammi says, “Ethics requires all of us.”.

Jonas on what ethical farming means to consumers

Tammi Jonas, who is writing her PhD on the role of food in a cosmopolitan, sustainable society, always has some wonderful insights into the expectations of farmers and consumers, so I was thrilled when she agreed to write this guest post for Milk Maid Marian.

In a number of recent discussions amongst farmers and with non-farmers, there has seemed to be an impasse. It goes something like this:

Non-farmer: ‘how can you treat animals that way?’

Farmer: ‘we love our animals, you’re just being misled by activists showing you worst practice’

Non-farmer: ‘I just want you to be kind to the animals while you raise them, and to kill them with as little stress as possible’ [many vegans snort at this point, though not all]

Farmer: ‘we treat our cows/sheep/etc better than our children! They’re pampered! We love them!’

Non-farmer: ‘but you handle them roughly and slaughter bobby calves young after starving them!’

Farmer: ‘what do you want us to do with all the bobby calves? We can’t afford to raise them all? But we send them to a nearby abattoir to minimise stress and time off feed…’

Non-farmer: ‘but the poor calves!’

Non-farmer then in most cases goes and purchases milk from Coles or Woolworths at $1 per litre for private label, or slightly more for ‘branded’ milk. They also consume meat and dairy daily, yet don’t want their meat to come from intensively-raised animals.

Who’s right here? And what’s at stake?

To get to the heart of the matter, I asked a very simple question on the twitterz yesterday:

Non-farmy (meat-eating) types – what do you want from farmers in the raising of the animals you want to eat? Be specific!

Here were the replies:

@trib: animals get more open space than legislated, only necessary drugs, healthy, natural food, capacity to behave naturally, eg herding

@FreeHugsTommy: I want the animals to be living a life as close as possible to the one they would live if they weren’t being farmed.

@hadrian33: Happy animals (allowed to roam and eat what they like best) As stress-less a death as possible

@andrewfaith: Organic, free range, humanely treated. Treat them the way we would like to be treated – with care and respect.

@katgallow: For animals 2 have chance of self-expression. Eg pigs root around, wallow etc as expressn of ‘pighood’

@drnaomi: I would like food animals to have good living conditions, good natural food and to not be traumatized by transport and slaughter.

@th3littleredhen: the best possible quality of life (& death) before it becomes food.

@graceonline: Truly pasture-raised, pasture-fed; no feed or plants with GMO or animal parts or slurry; respectful butchering; clean;

@abbystorey: to know where & how animals are raised. Sounds obvious but pics of happy farmyards & slippery terms like freerange are misleading.

@stillmansays: want cows raised in deep pasture w cow/calf herds & slaughter in pasture to allow cows opp to grieve & re-form herd dynamics

@EmpiricalBaker: reasonable prices, animals raised outdoors in nature, open communication with farmers

Now, my communities of interest on the twitterz are overrepresented with food-focused folks, and many of them are much more conscious of ethical consumption than average. But by and large, what they said they want is roughly what I believe most people would actually say they want in the treatment of farm animals. As @kirsty_l pointed out, it would make one appear and feel ‘not good’ to suggest one doesn’t care about the treatment of animals.

And yet in the supermarket, where the average consumers’ interactions with food take place, people are confronted with the constant appeal of ‘lower prices’. ‘Consumers win!’ ColeWorths and their mates at the Institute of Public Affairs tell us. But do we? Actually, the only winners here are the shareholders and highly paid execs of the duopoly.

The rest of us consumers lose – we lose choice as they label everything with their own brands, further obscuring an already impenetrable barricade of marketing spin – where are the farmers behind these products? The traceability of our food in supermarkets is now so clouded is it any wonder consumers have forgotten that there are real people out on the land working hard so they can purchase their daily bread in bright, shiny packages?

So back to the farmers – the majority of Australian farmers I believe do care for their animals, but they are very aware that they are raising these animals for slaughter. There is an inescapable level of pragmatism when handling animals destined for dinner plates, but that doesn’t mean most farmers are treating their animals in ways consumers wouldn’t like.

For example, the average dairy cow in Australia grazes happily in the paddock, coming in for milking twice a day (some dairies have gone to three, I understand, due to intense financial pressures in this deregulated market). Yes, on most dairies the calves will be taken off the mother between 12 hours and three days after birth, and some 700,000 calves will go to slaughter between 5 and 30 days old. There are concerns about how long these animals are left without feed in their final day of transport and while waiting at the abattoir, just as there are concerns about their handling throughout. We farmers would do well to listen to those concerns and always aim for best, humane practice, as I believe the majority do. And if we know or hear of farmers, drivers or abattoirs who are treating the animals poorly, rather than responding like the Catholic church and remaining silent or being defensive, we should be the loudest voices denouncing their behaviour.

Australia is lucky – this isn’t America – our beef and dairy cattle and sheep are still living out their lives in the full glory of cowness and sheepness (except in the case of ‘grain fed’ cattle, who are kept in feedlots for long periods even in Australia) – I only wish I could say the same for pigs and poultry, the vast majority of whom are raised intensively.

But I’ll finish by returning to consumers. We vote for humane treatment of animals with our dollar. So long as we over-consume meat and dairy while seeking the cheapest prices, we’ll get what we pay for – intensively farmed animals. If everyone decreased their meat and dairy consumption and paid more for it, farmers could afford to give the animals the space we say we want them to have. Next time you’re not sure you can afford that free-range pork, eat a couple of vegetarian dinners and then splash out and eat the tastiest shoulder you’ve ever had. Everyone will be happier, from your taste buds to the farm critters to your grandchildren. Ethics requires all of us.