Does A Dairy Farm Visit Change Perception?
One of the ways animal industries often respond after controversy is to question citizens’ knowledge of farming practices. Citizens who express concerns about farmed animal welfare are often dismissed as uninformed. What’s more, except for two studies in the Netherlands, there is a clear lack of research comparing the responses of non-farming citizens after being exposed to various practices.
In this study, Canadian researchers questioned 50 interested lay citizens before and after a self-guided tour of a dairy farm. The aim of the study was to describe their animal welfare perceptions, concerns, and values before the visit, and to observe how they changed in these areas after the visit. The researchers chose the dairy industry because they surmised that this industry has received less attention than others when it comes to animal welfare.
In their “before” responses, the participants expressed both positive and negative perceptions of the dairy industry. Positive associations included describing it as a hard and dedicated work enterprise, or as an idyllic, important activity. However, participants most frequently associated dairy farming with the consumer goods it provides, which suggests they had not given much thought to the animals behind the products. Meanwhile, initial negative associations included seeing dairy farming as industrialized and factory-like, with objections to inhumane treatment of the animals; four participants also perceived the industry as a profit-oriented one that prioritizes production over animals. Some voiced concerns that larger farms were worse for animal welfare.
Before visiting the farm, participants were divided in their assessment of the overall quality of life for dairy cows: 21 were confident that dairy cows generally have a good life, 15 were neutral, and 14 were not confident. The most common welfare value among participants was biological-functioning conditions, such as access to food and water and natural living. Meanwhile, participants expressed concerns about the culling of bull calves and cows’ longevity and end of life. More than half of the participants knew about feeding and housing practices in their region of Canada, including that pasture access is not mandatory and that cows must give birth to a calf to produce milk. However, only 13 participants knew that calves are usually separated from their mothers immediately after birth.
After the visit, only a minority of participants experienced a full reversal in their perception of cow welfare: two initially felt confident but ended up not confident, and four unconfident participants became confident that the cows experience good welfare. The general shifts in perception were rather equally distributed: 16 shifted negatively, 12 shifted positively and 22 remained unchanged. Notably, after the visit, there was a shift in the majority from mostly confident (21) to mostly nuanced (27).
Participants viewed quality of care positively regardless of their shifts in perception: no participant responded that individual care toward animals was poor. After visiting the farm, many participants expressed concerns about the cows not having access to pastures, while the most prevalent new concern was the early separation of the calf from the cow. The educative aspect of the visit was confirmed when the “after” quiz results showed more correct answers to all questions regarding dairy-farm practices. Researchers observed the largest improvement in the question about calf separation: 36 participants correctly answered the question after the visit, compared to 13 before the visit.
Interestingly, to address citizens’ concerns about cows’ lack of outdoor access, the authors recommend researching whether increasing free space per animal within current barn environments might mitigate the concern about zero grazing. Meanwhile, the researchers note that early cow-calf separation is troubling due to possible health and emotional implications for the cow and calf, and because it prevents both mother and calf from engaging in natural behaviors. The authors recommend exploring whether raising calves in small groups instead of single housing (the common practice today) could help mitigate concerns about early calf separation.
A key finding was that participants’ quiz performance improved after the farm visit, but it was not accompanied by an improvement in perceptions of dairy cow welfare. This supports other emerging research that suggests learning about farmed animal practices often fails to improve people’s acceptance, and is even shown to decrease their acceptance in some cases.
Understanding public concern about farmed animal welfare and observing how it may be affected by firsthand exposure to an industry could have huge implications for advocacy. Although it is unclear why questions about other morally arguable practices (e.g., artificial insemination, growth-hormone use, and life spans of the animals) were not included in the quizzes, animal advocates can still benefit from this study’s findings. The fact that such educational visits don’t diminish citizens’ concerns for the well-being of cows is especially motivating.