Dairy Cow Welfare: Public And Farmer Perceptions
For farmed animals, some forms of animal cruelty that were recently “standard industry practice” are now being scrutinized in more detail. Some writers have asserted that “animal welfare” can broadly be defined as having three dimensions: “animal functioning, animal feeling, and animal ability to live a reasonably natural life.” This general definition could apply to any industry, but this article focuses on dairy farming. In the U.S., undercover investigations have exposed dairy farm practices that have given consumers pause. The dairy industry is evidently aware of the response. They’ve even created a (voluntary) program — “Farmers Assuring Responsible Management” — which is meant “to establish and verify farm practices and to provide assurance to the public at large.”
Researchers say the rising scrutiny of dairy production makes it “critical” for the industry to stay informed of consumer attitudes. But the industry is also interested in farmers’ attitudes. This research sought “to assess U.S. public and dairy farmer attitudes and perceptions about dairy cattle welfare.” The researchers’ goal was “to compare the groups as well as to provide a benchmark for discussion and monitoring.” To do this, they conducted surveys of more than 2,000 members of the general public and almost 700 dairy farmers (randomly selected from a list of dairy producers). It’s worth noting that the general public portion of the survey was about 70% female, with an average respondent age of 51 years old.
The researchers found that about 2/3 of respondents consumed milk four or more times per week. About one in seven (14%) consumed milk less than once per week, and only about 5% of respondents said they never drank milk. On the production side, they found that the farmers generally reported having more cows than average. Annual milk production was also higher per cow than the national average. Most operations derived at least 75% of their farm income from the dairy operation. Digging into welfare statistics, the researchers found that 63% of the public was concerned about dairy cow welfare, while 20.5% was not concerned and 16% didn’t know how they felt. More than half (57%) of the public disagreed that “low milk prices are more important than the well-being of cattle.”
Seven in ten (70%) of people said they hadn’t seen any media stories about cow dairy welfare, while 30% had. The general public believed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be the most accurate source of information about dairy cow welfare. This was followed by a second-place tie between The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Veterinary Medical Association. For their part, it seems the farmers who were surveyed recognized their crucial role in dairy cow welfare. While the public believed that the USDA and HSUS we more influential on policy, the farmers felt that individuals – including farmers, veterinarians, and consumers – had more influence.
This article shows where the opinions of the general public and dairy farmers intersect. Both the general public and farmers believe that good welfare is primarily in the hands of farmers. The authors note the study’s likely selection bias. It was “targeted to primary shoppers” which means that the sample “was older, more educated, and more female than the general U.S. population.” This is an important caveat because the survey found a difference when it came to hypothetical laws that would restrict dairy production. Older, female respondents were more likely to vote for such laws. So were people who had viewed animal welfare stories in the news media, which may be an encouraging sign for advocates.