Interest growing in animal welfare on dairy farms: Report

By Hal Conick

- Last updated on GMT

People want better treatment of dairy cows, but will it happen? Photo: iStock - PhillipMinnis
People want better treatment of dairy cows, but will it happen? Photo: iStock - PhillipMinnis

Related tags Milk Dairy farming Cattle

More citizens are becoming interested in the wellbeing of cows on dairy farms, according to a recent study.

Researchers asked just fewer than 500 Americans in two different groups, once in June 2014 and once in January 2015, to respond to the question “What do you consider to be an ideal dairy farm and why are these characteristics important to you?” Results of the study were published in the Journal of Dairy Science​.

“The majority of reasons provided by participants referred to ethical arguments about the treatment of animals,”​ the report said of the surveys. “In this context, respondents argued that milk production is ethically acceptable only if animals are well treated.”

Most respondents to the survey had at least some college education, with the most represented age group between 25 and 34.

Public trust at risk

Dr. Nina von Keyserlingk, professor of animal welfare at the University of British Columbia, in Canada, and Dr. Maria José Hötzel, of Federal University of Santa Catarina, in Brazil, told DairyReporter that losing public trust is an area of “great risk”​ for the dairy industry.

The pair, two of the report’s researchers, responded via email from Brazil that the frequent image portrayed of the dairy industry is cows on pasture, but this does not reflect reality. They said less than 5% of lactating dairy cows are housed on pastures in the US. With this said, there is a risk the industry could lose the public’s trust as they become more informed.

“The findings of our survey indicate that the respondents desire a good life for the dairy cow, but they also desire a modern, efficient dairy as this will ensure that the milk that they drink is safe and abundant and a profitable farm surely will have the means to look after their animals,”​ they said. “We actually see this last part as a potential area of opportunity for the dairy industry.”

In addition, survey respondents said they want cows that are given fewer antibiotics and drugs in general, specifically for the purpose of milk production. However, they want an efficient dairy farm that is able to produce high-quality milk.

Regarding the use of antibiotics, von Keyserlingk and Hötzel said there was a “complete rejection”​ of these practices for the purposes of increasing milk production, but respondents believed sick cows must be treated responsibly when need be.

Will there be a change in the industry?

One distinction von Keyserlingk made is that those who responded to this survey are not consumers, per se, but citizens. Everyone is a consumer when they go into a grocery store, and can “vote with their wallet,”​ she said, but people can also offer opinions when they are asked questions outside of the grocery store that may not translate.

“In our survey we were clearly asking people their views as citizens, not as consumers,” ​she said. “If we think about these two different personas and the roles they play, I think it explains why people frequently say one thing when asked face to face (or over the telephone) but act differently when they go into a grocery store to purchase their food.”

While von Keyserlingk said agricultural companies often argue that practices will change when consumers are willing to pay more, she considers this a risky proposition, as it is “putting the sustainability of their industry on the shoulders of a largely uninformed stakeholder.”​ 


Source: Journal of Dairy Science​ 2015
"Imagining the ideal dairy farm"
Authors: C. Cardoso, M. Hötzel, D. Weary, J. Robbins, M. von Keyserlingk

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The data do not show growth in interest for animal welfare

Posted by janellebower,

Both the title of the article and the summary suggest more people are concerned about animal welfare than in the past. Where is the historical data that show this growth? The study includes 2 waves of data that have similar results - no growth in interest. The research paper states "this is the first study..." so there are no historical data points to support your key takeaway. Concern may be strong, but there are no data to support that concern is growing.

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Please go here for better information:

Posted by Dan,

As a followup to my earlier comment, here is a website that has some short videos and links to fact sheets about dairy cows:

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Questions for the Respondents:

Posted by Julie Walker,

The report notes respondents as 'citizens.' In the original survey, were any of these questions asked of the respondents: 1.)Do you have any experience with farm animals? 2.) Do you have any experience with dairy cattle or milking cows, in particular? 3.) Can you name the basic needs of dairy animals? 4.)Can you name any characteristics of animal instincts which have led to the development of modern housing systems? 5.) Do you have any education in an animal science program or ag education course? My point is this, consumers/citizens have opinions, but are their opinions qualified opinions based on experience, or or emotional rhetoric they have 'heard' via social media or any other publication outlet? At some point, responsible animal science has got to win out. We in production agriculture have got to quit apologizing for what we know as sound animal science practices, and start explaining the mentality about why - and how - we do what we do. We are good caretakers!

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