REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — Ten years ago, Ohio decided to put standards for livestock care into law.
What would become the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board was created as a stop-gap to prevent organizations, specifically the Humane Society of the United States, from introducing a more aggressive ballot initiative to regulate Ohio agriculture.
“We felt like they [animal rights organizations] were going to come in and establish rules,” said Roger High, Ohio Farm Bureau’s director of livestock. “This was a way for us to be proactive for farmers and give them some guidelines that were research-based … and would not damage the livestock or agriculture industry in Ohio.”
The 13-member board, which includes representatives from family farmers, farming organizations, consumers, county humane societies, veterinarians, universities and food safety specialists, established standards and put them into law in 2010 and 2011.
Since then, the board has investigated almost 300 complaints. Less than half of these, however, have been violations. Only one in eight years has resulted in a penalty.
Dr. Tony Forshey, Ohio’s state veterinarian, said it is the only state that has standards for livestock care in law. Farmers who violate the standards and do not become compliant by a given deadline are subject to penalties, ranging from up to $500 for first minor violations and $1,000-5,000 for first major violations.
In Forshey’s words, the standards have “teeth.”
“Our regulations talk about ‘you must’ and ‘you will,’ not ‘you could’ and ‘you should,’” Forshey said. “It’s one way for commodity groups to police themselves and put bad actors out of business.”
Forshey emphasized, however, that the board is focused on compliance, not putting people out of business. This is the first year that the board has had to issue a penalty.
“We’ve got a great track record,” Forshey said. “They comply, because they know they’re gonna have to.”
The board is still a stop-gap, High said. But it also lets the state adapt rules as more scientific information about livestock wellbeing develops, and gives the Ohio Department of Agriculture a way to enforce these rules.
East Ohio complaints
The board meets four times a year to review the standards. It updates information about the number and locations of investigations at every meeting.
There have been investigations in 80% of Ohio’s counties, but almost a quarter have been in Wayne, Stark and Columbiana counties.
At the Nov. 19 meeting, Forshey noted Wayne County has many tourists, and many complaints were near major highways, in areas that are very visible to the public.
The most common violations this year had to do with housing, feed and water and mortality disposal.
Board members said there were more investigations this year than in recent years. Many complaints have been about thin animals. Veterinarian and board member Jerry Lahmers said it could be because of the limited and poor-quality hay this year, due to the wet weather.
Still, only 40% of the investigations turned out to be violations, on par with previous years. Nine of the violations have been addressed and 10 are active or pending re-inspection. Only one livestock owner is currently facing a penalty.
Although more visible farms may get more complaints from the public, Forshey said about half the complaints they receive are from more secluded areas. These complaints often come from neighbors.
Forshey said while the board investigates all complaints, some are motivated by personal disputes, or lack of knowledge. This is why only about half of the investigations uncover violations.
Most violations have been on hobby farms, where owners usually have full-time jobs off the farm.
“Sometimes they just don’t know how to take care of them, so we teach them how,” Forshey said.
When ODA receives a complaint, it sets up a site visit. If there is a violation, the owner receives a notice that explains the violation, recommends steps to resolve it and gives a deadline.
An investigator returns at the end of that time frame. The owner is penalized only if they fail to comply.
Lauren Ketcham, of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association, told Farm and Dairy she believes the penalties should be adjusted based on the number of animals affected.
“What could be a really onerous deterrent for an operation with a few animals would be a slap on the wrist to a large operation that could absorb these costs,” Ketcham said.
Forshey said the ODA has received complaints about large, commercial operations, but none of these complaints have turned out to be violations.
“I think that, again, our producers, particularly larger producers, are very conscientious about their livestock and the care they take of them,” Forshey said. “Some facilities that people call factory farms are actually very well-built buildings that are environmentally controlled.”
Few things have changed since the standards were first passed.
“I think we got it right the first time,” Forshey said.
The original standards were hammered out over 14 months in a series of 76 meetings. Each species had a subcommittee, for a total of 13 subcommittees. At each meeting, the subcommittees shared their ideas about the standards of animal care and welfare.
“It was a very long, strenuous process,” Forshey said.
Existing farms were given deadlines to upgrade barns to meet some of the housing standards.
“You can’t just do that in a day,” Forshey said. “It takes time.”
Ketcham attended most of the early subcommittee meetings. She said the ODA welcomed everyone to the table, which allowed groups like OEFFA to make sure the standards considered small-scale, organic farms, in addition to larger farms.
The board meetings still include a public comment period.
High said the board gives the public a way to make comments and express concerns about animal welfare, and learn more about what farmers are supposed to be doing on their farms.
“We’ve had a lot better dialogue with the consumers as far as transparency,” he said.
Forshey said the standards show the public how much effort goes into animal welfare.
“I think it’s brought a real awareness to the general public that may not know much about agriculture at all,” Forshey said.
HSUS has had a major presence at meetings since the beginning, in addition to having a county humane society representative on the board.
Still, in statement provided to Farm and Dairy, Josh Balk, vice president for farm animal protection with the HSUS, said he hoped the board would consider some things other states have done, like Michigan eliminating confining hens in cages.
Ketcham said there were several issues consumers cared about, like routine antibiotic use, that were not addressed in the standards.
Forshey said antibiotic use was not addressed in the standards because the board believed commodity groups and other organizations were already addressing the issues through antibiotic stewardship programs.
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