Guest Columns


The truth about animal care

John Umhoefer

John Umhoefer is executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. He contributes this column monthly for Cheese Market News®.

You’ve seen the internet images from clandestine video shot on dairy farms. Carefully chosen images, edited dark and set to music by organizations dead-set against animal agriculture. The scenes are disturbing by design, and capture some moments that no one accepts or condones.

But that’s not the dairy industry.

Dairy farmers have the respect of the dairy processing industry. Caring for dairy cows is hard work, 24/7, and for every 5-minute smear video, there are tens of thousands of hours of attention to cow comfort, feeding, milking and vet care on farms across the nation that never reach the internet.

Nurturing the animals that feed our nation is a dairy farmer’s obsession, and it’s a skill that can always be refined, always be improved. But American dairy farms do not have an animal care problem. They have a communications problem, and an enemy motivated to blast any failure worldwide.

Managing a dairy farm is about managing cows, managing employees and managing public perception. The same management challenges (less the cows) apply at Disney, Chuck E. Cheese’s, Kraft Foods and Twelve Corners Cheese Factory. Every business has a public perception component that must be managed, and no business lies outside the public realm. A well-run dairy farm can, in fact, boost public perception of the care of dairy cows.

Set aside the smear videos for a moment. The rise of animal care programs for dairy farms, with protocols for care and audits to verify, are simply good business. Animal care programs can be part of an overall quality control plan, a piece of the farm management structure.

In June, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association joined many of our members and dairy cooperatives and private dairy foods makers nationwide in support of the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program executed by National Milk Producers Federation with the support of Dairy Management Inc. WCMA encourages our members to take up this animal care program with their dairy farm partners and build the growing list of dairy farms that adhere to the cow management principles in the FARM program and accept third-party audits to verify good practices.

Last week National Milk Producers Federation voted to double down on the FARM program, requiring dairy cooperatives and proprietary companies that adopt FARM to mandate the program for their dairy farm partners.

On Jan. 13, WCMA will invite its member leaders to an in-depth look at the FARM program. The decision to institute FARM, or another animal care protocol, requires partnership between the milk producer and the milk buyer. WCMA’s cheese manufacturers, buttermakers and dairy product processors will learn the details of the program to make an informed decision.

On the dairy processor side, quality protocols, safety regulations and intense audits have become the norm. In addition to inspections by state departments of agriculture and the FDA, dairy plants see routine audits from major cheese buyers and powerful retail grocery store chains. In addition, dairy buyers demand that dairy plants conform to third-party audits benchmarked against the Global Food Safety Initiative or GFSI.

The GFSI is a worldwide set of standards that auditing programs align with to gain broad acceptance. For example, the BRC or British Retail Consortium audit program is “approved” by the Global Food Safety Initiative and another popular audit, SQF or Safe Quality Food, is also aligned with the requirements spelled out in the Global Food Safety Initiative.

On the ground, auditing firms in the United States crawl around dairy plants for days executing the BRC audit or SQF audit. Their work can lead to physical changes to a dairy plant structure, improved management schemes, and definitely reams of paper and binders that plants need to explain safety protocols and log daily compliance with safety protocols. Managing food safety and assisting auditors is a new job title and a continuous challenge at dairy plants of all sizes.

This is the world dairy manufacturers live in. And the demand for quality, safe food will only grow.

The FARM program is one provider offering animal care protocols and audit programs for dairy farms. This and other, similar programs will become the new norm for dairy farms, and each farm should accept these new regimens as a cost of doing business and as proof of good cow management.

As animal care programs saturate the dairy industry and verify good practices on farms, only the need for communication will remain. Dairy must fight its enemies with the truth of countless hours of care for dairy cows. It’s a truth consumers deserve to know.


The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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