I listened to this afternoon’s CBC Montreal Radio noon call in with great concern, and realized that a myriad of misconceptions and misrepresentations are circulating about the Canadian dairy industry as a result of the disgusting footage that surfaced from a BC dairy operation last week.
For starters, let us address the simplistic and rhetorical line of questioning presented to Mercy for Animals spokes people by the CBC radio host. There is no doubt what answer you will solicit from this (or any other animal activist) group when asked if dairy farming is cruel. MFA’s mission statement is clearly stated on their website: “Mercy For Animals Canada is dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies.” Animal farming of any kind is “cruel” in the eyes of this organization. Period.
I was equally taken aback by the discourse of SPCA Montreal executive director Nicholas Gilman, who repeatedly made allusions to the poor treatment of animals on farms, and repeatedly stated that farm practices were going to have to change as a result of this video. Let me be exceedingly clear. The treatment of animals in that video is NOT the norm on Canadian dairy farms. Nor does it respect our codes. We are not the wild west of the business world, somehow magically devoid of laws and regulations. Anybody who is actually interested in knowing the regulations that govern the care and handling of our animals may find a copy of the detailed Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farm Animals: Dairy Cattle at http://www.nfacc.ca/codes-of-practice/dairy-cattle. In fact, if you read all the way through to the end of the document, you will find a list of all the partner organizations that collaborated in the elaboration of the code. Included on that list of committee members is the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. I submit that Mr. Gilman’s assertions that our farms are currently devoid of appropriate regulations against animal abuse was either willful misrepresentation of the facts (as his organization helped build the code) or blatant ignorance of the very subject matter he was speaking to, as an “informed” expert on the matter.
There is no clearer evidence that the Canadian dairy industry has a strong handle on animal well being on our farms, than the rapid, uniform and pronounced disgust expressed regarding the farm in question and its implicated employees. Our national board, our provincial boards and individual farmers from coast to coast have been clear. This is not acceptable in our industry. Coincidentally, a caller to the radio program stated it was time for farmers to be proactive on the subject of animal welfare on our farms. Dairy Farmers of Canada, in conjunction with multiple industry partners have been elaborating our “Proaction” program for more than a year now. You can find an overview of this program, which encompasses everything from animal care to milk quality at: http://www.dairyfarmers.ca/what-we-do/programs/the-proaction-initiative-on-farm-excellence. Clearly, we are proactively (not reactionary) developing ever-higher standards for our farms.
A gentleman then called in, who was disenchanted by the modern dairy farm that he had taken his grandchildren to visit. The farm was milking 65 cows; I believe the term he used to describe the farm was industrial. He explained he was expecting a bucolic scene from his youth with cows in the pasture and farmer shoveling out the manure. I actually respect the effort this caller made to reconcile the operation of a modern farm in contrast to his expectations. He reasoned all the technology and new ways were due to an inability to attract farm workers. Dear consumers, please understand that farming is like every other industry in the modern world. Our facilities and operations can only continue so long as we are keeping pace with the developments, products and services that are currently available in our industry. In fact, modern milk quality and animal care laws imply that we must move to modern equipment and modern facilities. Our dairy farm still operates in the old original stable which is over 100 years old. I can tell you, we are reaching the limits of our capacity to adapt and renovate our old but treasured barn to accommodate modern technology.
That being said, dairy farms come in all shapes and sizes. We are all governed coast to coast by the same milk quality standards under the Canadian Quality Milk Program, but our operational realities are as diverse as the regions we all farm in. My dairy cows still go out to pasture for 5 months of the year. In fact many Canadian dairy farms still pasture their cows. In our case we are blessed with abundant available pasture, and a cool summer climate on the Gaspe Peninsula. This is the model that works best for us and for our cows. You may be surprised to hear me say that one of the nicest dairy farms I have ever visited was a free stall barn, where the cows stay inside year round, and are milked by robot when they feel like visiting the robot. (Yes, dairy cows like to be milked). Outside it had to be 32 degrees plus humidity. Inside the cows were as cool as cucumbers, the air was ventilated and moving even in the corners of the barn and there were no deer flies bothering the animals. For that farm, it was the best scenario for the animals.
Another clear misconception is farm size, which was perpetuated on this particular radio show by repeatedly referring to “large modern farms”. The national average number of dairy cows per dairy farm is 78 cows. The average herd size here in Quebec is 58 dairy cows. Our reality couldn’t be further from so called “factory farming”. If you are interested in more facts about dairy farms in Canada and their operations, you can visit: http://www.dairyinfo.gc.ca/index_e.php?s1=dff-fcil#farm.
In closing, I want to answer the question that radio host Shawn Apel put to several callers “what should consumers do about this”. If the practices on Canadian dairy farms are a concern to you, ASK A DAIRY FARMER how things are done, and why they are done that way. Here in Quebec we have an excellent opportunity to visit farms every autumn during the Portes Ouvertes sur les Fermes du Quebec. Even more conveniently we have an active presence on social media, via twitter or Facebook. Consumers can either direct questions to our national or provincial boards, OR they can even find and follow 1000’s of real dairy farmers who share their stories, videos, photos; their REALITY every single day.