SALEM, Ohio – Quality assurance is a “big business” term. Big companies with big budgets and important agendas, who want to be sure everything is produced in the fastest, safest ways.
But, increasingly, this big term is having big implications on farms.
It’s not the top priority on the average dairy operation. But it should be, said veterinarian and Virginia heifer raiser Don Gardner.
Consumers have a new “want” list when they’re grocery shopping – one that includes animal welfare and environmental awareness.
And ultimately these demands fall on farmers.
“It’s not just the 1,500-cow dairies,” Gardner said. “All of us are in the same boat.”
Working in advance. The key is for farmers to address consumers’ worries before they become major problems, he said.
Look at European countries. Farmers have lost control of their own production practices, he said.
In various places, dairy calves have to stay with their mother for 48 hours. In others, bull calves must stay on the birth farm for two weeks before they can be marketed.
And in some cases, known practices to prevent scours and Johne’s disease have been shoved aside.
Why? Because “feel-good emotional practices promoted by animal rights and food activists” have taken their place, Gardner said.
Taking charge. The U.S. dairy industry can avoid this by taking the situation into its own hands, he said.
By participating in voluntary quality assurance programs, farmers will have proof they are doing things the “right” ways, he said.
If enough farmers participate voluntarily, then there will be no reason for a mandatory program, which potentially could be driven by activists’ interests and not farmers.
Would farmers rather have someone who knows nothing about dairy restricting their farms? Or would they rather put their own sound science behind their standards, Gardner asked.
The pressure. The swine and poultry industries already have made changes because of consumer pressure.
Food activists convinced the public that producers supplying McDonald’s were using cage layers that weren’t animal-friendly, and poultry producers were forced to make changes, he said. The same goes for sows and farrowing crates.
“It’s just a matter of time before it’s dairy,” Gardner said.
These changes are based on fear. The average person doesn’t know what’s true about these claims, but he or she hears the activists’ $100 million advertising budgets and gets scared, he said.
It’s up to dairy farmers to protect themselves, he said, and to assure the public the animals are comfortable, the milk is safe, and the environment is a priority.
Five stars. One voluntary program has been working on this for several years.
The Five-Star Dairy Quality Assurance program, administered by the Milk and Dairy Beef Quality Assurance Center, is a two-step voluntary certification.
First, producers follow the center’s guidelines for a self-audit.
Many milk markets want this followed up with third-party verification, said Executive Director Keith Carlson. At this point, a vet is assigned to the farm and does a written evaluation on six areas: milk safety, dairy beef safety, biosecurity, animal care, personnel management, and environmental impact.
Participating farms usually do this annually, Carlson said, adding the center does not release the number of farms certified.
Farmers who follow a voluntary program like this aren’t going to see an immediate increase in their milk checks, Gardner said.
But, he said, it will ensure there is a market for their milk in the future.