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What the public really thinks about dairies [Margaret Evans]

While the European Union has delved to some degree into public views about agriculture and how livestock is cared for, little has been done to find out the public’s expectations in Canada and the US.

UBC’s Animal Welfare Program located within the Faculty of Land and Food Systems completed two studies last year to garner some clarity. The first study was conducted online with 468 American citizens and they were asked a straightforward question: What do you consider to be an ideal dairy farm and why are these characteristics important to you?

The second study involved interviewing 50 Canadian participants and asking a series of questions before and after a tour of the UBC Dairy Education and Dairy Centre in Agassiz.  

The results were both predictable and surprising. In the first study, participants clearly placed the welfare and humane treatment of cows as their number one priority followed by the ideal farm being profitable, productive and efficient. They also stated that the quality of production must be reflected in high-quality milk products at the same time rejecting the use of hormones, antibiotics or other chemicals except in the case of veterinary needs.

However, in the second study participants were asked about their concerns before and after a self-guiding tour of the university’s dairy farm. The most frequent issues before the tour were the quality of feed given the cows, whether they had access to pasture, whether they had sufficient space, and if they were treated with care.

The interviews were done knowing that the participants had varying levels of practical dairy farming knowledge. The hope was that by educating the visitors about dairy farming, they would be accepting of the various management practices that frequently happen.

However, although they learned some things about dairy farming, a number of concerns materialized for the participants including early cow-calf separation, lack of pasture access, space and issues around hygiene.

Prior to the farm visit, 42% of participants were confident that dairy cows had a good life; following the visit, only 24% said they were still confident while the remainder were either neutral (44%) or not confident (32%).

“The visit appeared to mitigate some concerns (e.g. provision of adequate food and water, gentle humane care) while reinforcing or eliciting others (e.g. lack of pasture access, early cow-calf separation),” says Marina von Keyserlingk, a professor in the Animal Welfare Program at UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems. “Moreover, animal welfare-relevant values held by the participants (e.g. natural living, care) appeared to play an important role in influencing perceptions of farm practices. Our results suggest that although education and exposure to dairy farming may resolve certain concerns, other concerns will likely persist (their concern that cows do not have access to pasture), and these concerns may expand as they become aware of other practices (cow-calf separation). Especially worrisome are practices that conflict with deeply held values around animal care (again, cow-calf separation).”

Von Keyserlingk says that there is a clear disconnect between current dairy farming and how the public sees dairy farming which, she adds, is worrisome in terms of the long-term sustainability of the dairy industry.

“The public places great value on naturalness and animal care,” she says. “Our studies suggest that providing assurances that animals are well treated, developing methods to incorporate pasture access and ensuring healthy products without relying on antibiotics or hormones will improve the social sustainability of the dairy industry.”

In recent years, the public has placed a greater importance on animal welfare, the cow’s freedom to move and accommodating their need to engage in natural healthy behaviours like pasture grazing. The public, of course, is not involved and therefore not necessarily educated in the management practices of dairy farms, but as consumers they are still stakeholders and care about how the food they consume is produced. Maybe things need to change.

 “My own feeling is that rather than trying to educate the public, the dairy industry needs to develop methods of meaningful two-way engagement with concerned citizens, for instance doing more research using social science methods to document the values of different stakeholders and examine approaches to resolving conflicts,” says von Keyserlingk. “We also need to do more biological research so that we can ultimately resolve issues, for example, by developing rearing systems that address public concerns around freedom of movement (naturalness) and social contact without putting animals at increased risk of disease.”

Knowing that dairy cows are treated well and able to spend some time outside on pasture would go a long way to enhancing the social sustainability of the dairy industry in the public’s eye.


CLBC February 2017

Vol.103 Issue 5
MARCH  2017

CLBC March 2017