Let’s face it we are in a “Record Now, Ask Questions Later” society. A quick scan of the news or a search on YouTube.com will turn up all sorts of videos showcasing bad behavior. The dairy industry is not immune to this trend. For the second time in the past week, a dairy in Florida is being accused of abusing cattle on their farm. (Read more: Second Florida dairy farm accused of animal abuse & Undercover video shows farmworkers beating cows with metal rods. Police are investigating the dairy) The problem is that instead of trying to solve the problem through education most are more concerned about concealing the issue through legislation against whistleblowing and exposure on social media.
This is not the first time the dairy industry has received a “black eye” with the appearance and wide distribution of a few animal abuse videos. (Read more: Dairy Cattle Abuse Video – A black eye for the dairy industry) Once again, we as dairy farmers find ourselves asking whether they were staged or not and how were these “employees” able to record such videos. These are the wrong questions. We should be asking ourselves what we can do to prevent these issues from occurring in the first place.
Now naturally there is the question of what type of individual whips out their phone and records such incidents instead of stopping them. Sadly, many people will record a street mugging rather than try to prevent it. I guess in one way they feel that by documenting it they are doing some measure of prevention, though, in reality, they are doing nothing to solve the problem.
Then there are the whole Ag-Gag laws. “Ag-Gag” typically refers to state laws that forbid the act of undercover filming or photography of activity on farms without the consent of their owner. These mainly target whistleblowers of animal rights abuses at these agricultural facilities. Currently, Ag-Gag laws only exist in Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina and Utah. In fact, in Florida where these two recent videos occurred, Ag-Gag laws where introduced back in 2011 as part of Bull 1246. It would have “prohibited a person from entering onto a farm and making any audio record, photograph, or video record at the farm without the owner’s written consent”. Ultimately the “Ag Gag” language was struck from the Florida bill in committee and then died in committee on March 9, 2012.
But “Ag-Gag” only masks the issues and does not solve the root problem. If unchecked, this trend will lead to unwelcome, officious oversight of dairy husbandry practices. While the vast majority of those involved in the dairy industry understand that the better you treat your cattle and provide them with the ultimate comfortable, care, and nutrition you will maximize profitability, it is still essential to enforce ethical behavior on your dairy.
The old saying “When the cat’s away, the mice will play” applies on many dairies. Poor treatment of our livestock is directly related to a lack of capable, accountable supervision. Now I understand that it’s impossible to be present 24/7 at all parts of your dairy operation. Also, video recording every inch of your dairy and monitoring like a maximum-security prison or vegas casino is simply not possible. But here are three steps to encourage and enforce ethical behavior on your dairy:
- Develop better hiring practices
Many jobs on a dairy don’t require extreme levels of education, background screening or even an in-depth interview to get the job. That is the first problem right there. If the candidate seems half reliable and has a heartbeat, too many dairies are offering a position on the spot. Due to the limited supply of labor, any candidate seems better than nothing. This also helps partially explain why robotic milking is seeing such an increase in demand. As Ben Loewith of Summitholm Holsteins, one of Canada’s top managed herds, with employees who average over 10+ years on the farm, explains in this video, hiring the correct people with potential might be one of the most important investments your dairy can make. As an employer, you can and should do background checks and reference checks and ask for Social Security cards and other hiring documents. If you’re not sure, seek counsel from an employment lawyer. It is legal to ask a potential employee if he/she is a member of or if they support an animal rights organization. Ask during the interview or on the employment application.If you interview a potential employee who seems suspicious, share that information with other farmers in your area. Stop would-be activists from getting access to any farm. Once you’ve hired an employee, put him or her on probation for 30, 60 or 90 days, watching them closely. Partner each new hire with a trusted employee – the new employee will learn best practices for your dairy and you’ll benefit from another set of eyes watching them closely. Also, require employees to sign a non-disclosure and confidentiality agreement. The agreement should include a clause for liquidated damages for taking or distributing photographs or video. If the employee violates the agreement, they may be subject to legal action and damages.
While it’s important to have the correct members on the dairy team. It is even more critical to educate them. There is a saying that the world is full of people with unrealized potential. If this is true, when the people you hire are recognized as having potential and then are adequately trained, these “diamonds in the rough” can become contributing dairy team members and ensure the completion of desired tasks, such as the humane care of stock. Often, there is an inadequate amount of scheduled time to teach or even develop best practice and expected protocols. Taking the time to review the practices on your dairy, cannot only eliminate embarrassing videos from surfacing but can have a massive impact on your bottom line. Sometimes we have done things a certain way for so long that we have never really stopped to think if it is necessarily the best way to do them. Your current employees can also be one of your best sources for developing new protocols. They are the hands-on people who are doing the job day to day. They can bring insight you had never thought of before. Involve them in this process and they will not only understand that they need to adhere to protocols, but they also will understand why. When these protocols are set, It’s also important to post clear guidelines that delineate the type of behavior you expect.
- Reward positive behavior
Workers respond better to positive reinforcement than they do to the threat of punishment. Enact a rewards system that promotes ethical behavior. For example, if an employee goes out of their way to provide superior care or concern for your cows, reward them. It is also important to reward whistleblowers who notify management of problem employees or practices that are detrimental to the care of the cows on your dairy. If an employee acts ethically even at a personal cost, publicly praise and reward them. It’s also important to outline potential penalties for unethical behavior, but use them as a last resort. It’s also essential to ensure privacy for whistleblowers and people who file complaints. If workers fear retaliation from peers, they are very likely to hesitate in bringing important matters to your attention.
Another good resource on animal care is the See it? Stop it! program that can be found by visiting www.seeitstopit.org/
The Bullvine Bottom Line
While some of the conditions depicted in these recent videos reflect that dairys’ struggle to deal with the aftermath of historic Hurricane Irma, others show a breakdown in the adherence to protocols, as well as our broader dairy community standards. It’s one thing to have best practices and expected protocols, it’s another to make sure they are remembered and adhered to. Following these three steps around hiring, educating and rewarding your employees and it will go a long way in ensuring that your dairy will not be featured in a future dairy abuse video.