What Drives Dairy Farmers To Support Welfare Measures?
Many dairy industry practices have significant, negative impacts on the welfare of cows, particularly male calves. Because they cannot produce milk, male dairy calves have less monetary value than female calves. Thus, farmers have less of a financial incentive to provide them with adequate welfare.
In recent years, the situation has become dire In Ireland. There, the number of dairy cows increased by nearly 60% from 2010-2020, resulting in a larger number of “unwanted” or surplus cows being born. Many of these calves were killed on farms or shipped overseas for the veal industry before they were weaned.
The authors of this study note that European consumers are increasingly concerned about dairy calf welfare. Certain policy interventions could improve the welfare of male calves, but would farmers support them? The authors investigated how much dairy farmers in Ireland would be willing to pay to implement a national “sexed semen” lab. In their words, sexed semen can reduce the number of unwanted male calves (and thus the number of male calves killed or shipped abroad for veal) by increasing the likelihood that dairy cows give birth to female calves. They also examined what the farmers’ motivations were for supporting the policy.
The researchers surveyed 403 Irish dairy farmers. First, they provided information about the treatment of unwanted male dairy calves and how a national sexed semen lab could improve their welfare. They also listed other benefits, including personal profit motives and benefits to the larger dairy industry. Then the researchers described the costs of a sexed semen lab and asked participants whether they would be willing to pay either €1, €3, €5, €7, or €9 per cow to implement such a policy. Those who answered “yes” were asked the same question, this time with a higher cost per cow. Those who answered “no” were offered a lower cost per cow.
Additionally, the researchers sought to determine how altruism plays a role in farmers’ motivations to support specific welfare policies. To do this, they asked participants to allocate money between themselves and another, anonymous respondent. Based on their level of altruism, participants were divided into three groups: “altruists,” “prosocials,” and “individualists.” Finally, participants were allowed to select why they supported the creation of the sexed semen lab. Reasons ranged from animal welfare to personal/economic to support for the wider dairy industry.
Overall, 68% of farmers said they would support a national sexed semen lab. When asked again with higher costs per cow, 65% of those who said yes the first time said yes to supporting the lab a second time. Meanwhile, only 27% of those who said “no” the first time agreed to supporting a national sexed semen lab when a lower cost per cow was offered to them. The likelihood of voting yes was higher when a participant was asked to pay less money to begin with.
The dairy farmers surveyed were willing to pay an average of €6.72 per cow per year to support the creation of the lab. Given that the farmers’ average number of cows was 133, this figure amounted to an average annual payment of about €894. Farmers who scored as the most altruistic were willing to pay the most per cow, while those who scored as the least altruistic were willing to pay the least per cow.
Among the reasons the farmers selected for supporting the creation of the lab, the most common were private and economic, such as lower prices for sexed semen. The most altruistic farmers were more likely to be motivated by helping the dairy industry’s reputation, but they were not more motivated by animal welfare. Overall, the researchers concluded that while improving animal welfare was a reason the farmers would support the creation of the lab, it was not the most important reason, even among the most altruistic farmers.
This study’s findings are important for animal advocates in that they suggest that the average dairy farmer in Ireland is willing to pay to support a policy to improve male dairy calves’ welfare. However, they’re not necessarily doing it for the animals. While the insights from this study can help advocates frame their “asks” in a way to enlist support from dairy farmers, it arguably brings up larger questions. For example, if a proposed welfare measure offers no economic or industry benefits, how much pushback will animal advocates face? As society continues to question the treatment of dairy cows and other farmed animals, getting farmers on board is critical for success.