Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Dairy Welfare Farm Tour, part 1: humane handling certification

I woke up at 6 am, and it felt luxuriously late after my 5:30 am wake up the previous morning. This was the morning of the second of my two electives during third year elective week. The day before I had spent the day in a small animal emergency room. Today, I would ride with a cow vet and some other students, seeing different farms and comparing how they care for their cows. It was chilly, but warmer than it had been, and the weather site I checked suggested a warm afternoon. I dithered between my insulated coveralls and the regular ones, before opting for the regular ones.

Two other students met me at my house, and we made the hour’s drive to the Ambulatory clinic together, where we met the fourth member of our little group. At the clinic, we hovered somewhat aimlessly in the break room and made small talk with the fourth year students there who were on a week of Ambulatory rotation. After a few minutes, Dr. Maolain, who was running the farm tour, walked through and asked us if we all had our boots. We were scornful. Did he really think we would have shown up for a day on farm without boots? (The boots are of course much appreciated when you are walking through a soup of cow manure. They are also more scrubbable than street shoes — easier to hose off and soap before leaving a farm, so that you do not carry infectious disease to the next farm you visit.)

We piled into Dr. Maolain’s truck, a tight fit, and headed out. We had a forty minute drive to our first stop, during which time Dr. Maolain taught us, via a mixture of the Socratic method and long rambles, about the state of third party certification for humane handling of dairy cows.
I have written about this before, but here is the situation in a nutshell: consumers want to buy milk from producers who treat their cows well. Some consumers purchase organic milk for this reason. However, organic certification in no way guarantees cow welfare. Currently, the only way to be sure you’re supporting a producer who treats his cows well is to buy the milk directly from an individual farmer whose practices you know. This is impractical, to say the least, especially for the average consumer who may not know enough about dairy practices to be able to identify those which result in good cow welfare.

One solution to this problem could be third party certification. An organization like American Humane offers certification to farmers for a fee. Consumers then buy milk from producers who are certified by this third party.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work either! There is no system in place to allow individual producers to have their milk pasteurized and marketed separately. The milk truck collects milk from multiple farms before delivery to the processing plant: if one farmer is certified and another is not, the milk nevertheless mixes together on the truck and in the plant. There is no way to process certified milk separately so that it can be marketed separately.

What’s the solution to that? More processing plants? Maybe, but they are expensive to build, and I don’t know all the relevant issues involved in their funding and construction. It is an interesting problem. I know the public has an interest in milk from humanely raised cows, and it frustrates me that the market systems are not in place to deliver it to them.

(More to come...)

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