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Using self-audits, assessments to ensure animal welfare

Ashley E. Adams and Jason Ahola Published on 20 June 2014

Animal welfare and well-being are phrases that have become common in animal agriculture, mainly due to the fact that consumers are becoming increasingly concerned with where their food comes from.

Complicating matters, animal activists have painted an inaccurate picture of how livestock are raised, resulting in new legislation being passed to ban certain practices. As a beef producer, you might be wondering what you can do to assure consumers about practices on your operation.

One option is the use of auditing (self- or third-party). Animal welfare auditing programs are designed to assist producers in providing optimal care for their animals, while protecting the autonomy of animal agriculture.

All of these programs build on the “Five Freedoms” generated by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) in the United Kingdom in 1965, which suggests that any animal kept by man must be protected from unnecessary suffering.

In the words of the FAWC, the five freedoms include:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst – via ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor
  2. Freedom from discomfort – by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease – by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
  5. Freedom from fear or distress – by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

Auditing programs

The use of third-party welfare audits has been increasing across all sectors of animal agriculture, with multiple auditing programs existing for the dairy, swine and poultry industries.

Many third-party welfare auditing programs exist in the beef industry. The use of an external evaluator allows for an unbiased assessment of the practices that occur on an operation, be it a farm, ranch or feedlot.

A non-exhaustive list of these programs includes:

  • Farm Animal Care Training and Auditing (FACTA) is a company that provides scientifically based auditing services developed by experts in animal handling and welfare. Their goal is to help producers reduce the risk of animal welfare problems through risk aversion programs, assuring consumers that the best animal care practices are in use.
  • Mérieux NutriSciences, whose Silliker auditing programs were designed to meet the American Meat Institute Foundation (AMIF) guidelines for beef production, have all auditors certified in the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO).
  • Validus Ventures LLC, which promotes “helping the world feel good about farming,” is the only third-party auditing system approved by the American Humane Association’s farm animal welfare program, American Humane Certified.
  • Two auditing companies, IMI Global and EarthCaims, provide auditing services to producers associated with the five-step animal welfare rating standards created by the Global Animal Partnership which originated via Whole Foods.

Beef Quality Assurance (BQA)

The beef industry also has the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program, which provides farmers and ranchers with educational tools to help ensure the welfare of beef cattle, as well as how to provide the best quality beef possible.

The BQA program emphasizes a “Producer Code of Cattle Care,” stating that beef producers should:

  • Provide necessary feed, water and care to protect the health and well-being of animals.
  • Provide disease prevention practices to protect herd health, including access to veterinary care.
  • Provide facilities that allow safe, humane and efficient movement and/or restraint of cattle.
  • Use appropriate methods to humanely euthanize terminally sick or injured livestock and dispose of them properly.
  • Provide personnel with training/experience to properly handle and care for cattle.
  • Make timely observations of cattle to ensure basic needs are being met.
  • Minimize stress when transporting cattle.
  • Keep updated on advancements and changes in the industry to make decisions based upon sound production practices and consideration for animal well-being.
  • Persons who willfully mistreat animals will not be tolerated.

The BQA program is an education-based effort, and does not offer external auditing of farms or ranches. Rather, guidelines and resources are provided to help beef producers excel in animal handling and management.

In recent years, one such resource is a self-assessment for individuals who would prefer to conduct an audit on their own, either in replacement of an external third-party audit, or in preparation for it.

The assessment tools are available for feedyards, stocker operators and cow-calf operations can be printed off, allowing producers the opportunity to conduct self-audits on their operations. The concept of self-audits and self-assessments has gained popularity. It is a great tool for evaluating your operation and highlighting areas in which you excel in animal welfare.

Additionally, possible areas that need improvement can be identified. Such tools help to ensure consumers that farmers and ranchers are invested, not only in producing the best quality beef product, but also in the welfare of their cattle.

Cattle Handling Observation Scoresheet

BQA cow-calf assessment

The BQA cow/calf assessment resource is intended to be an on-site educational tool that allows for assessing and benchmarking key indicators of animal welfare by focusing on three areas: animals, records and practices, and facilities and equipment.

Even though it is a self-assessment, the intent is that it is repeated periodically to identify trends and areas in which action is needed, and ultimately to promote continuous improvement. An assessor’s guide with specific forms was created to help a producer actually conduct a self-assessment. The forms focus on specific components to evaluate (i.e. training), how the category is evaluated, and the result (acceptable, needs improvement, or not applicable).

One specific component of the Assessor’s Guide is the “Cattle Handling Observation Scoresheet,” which enables a producer to objectively evaluate cattle handling on their operation (see Figure 1).

The intent is to evaluate the handling of 100 animals (calves, yearlings, cows, etc.) and note if any of 6 cattle handling criteria exceed the “critical limit” set by the BQA program (e.g. maximum use of an electric prod should be on less than 10 percent of animals handled).

On the scoresheet, each box represents one observed animal. If a “criteria” item listed is observed, that letter is placed in the box for that animal (i.e. J = jumped). If none are observed, the box will remain blank.

For each of the 6 handling categories, the BQA Program has provided clarification as to whether a letter should be placed in a box:

  • Electric prod used – electric current discharged while in contact with animal
  • Fell upon release from chute – animal’s torso/belly touched the ground
  • Stumbled / tripped when released – animal contacting the ground with a  knee
  • Vocalized in chute before procedures – only if occurs prior to procedure
  • Jumped or ran when released – do not include trotting or loping as running
  • Mis-caught and not readjusted – when animal’s head is not fully outside the chute, and balance of the body is within the chute but not readjusted.  Also include if animal is caught in tail/back gate and not released.

Once the scoresheet is summarized, results should be discussed among those involved in the cattle handling, including if any critical limits were exceeded.

More importantly, continued self-assessments of future cattle handling should be conducted, and tracked over time to determine if improvement is occurring.

Although a self-assessment may not provide access to marketing outlets or provide the ability to make animal welfare-related label claims on beef products, they can still enable improvement and serve as preparation for a third-party audit, which would be required for most marketing opportunities.

Conclusions

A recent Gallup poll indicated that a mere 5 percent of the American public consider themselves vegetarians, suggesting that the remaining 95 percent of Americans eat animal products.

This shows that the majority of the consuming public isn’t opposed to eating meat and animal products, although many are vehemently opposed to the mistreatment of animals in animal agriculture. This is becoming more apparent as consumers are becoming more vocal in stating that they want to know that the animal products they are consuming came from animals that did not suffer in the process.

Programs such as the self- and third-party auditing programs discussed in this article, including those associated with a marketing program, help to ensure freedom in animal agriculture and to protect the autonomy of the beef industry.

By participating in external audits or by conducting self-audits, beef producers are taking a proactive step to assure consumers that they can be confident animals in the beef industry are well cared for.  end mark

Ashley E. Adams is a doctorate graduate student at Colorado State University; Dr. Jason K. Ahola is associate professor of beef management systems at CSU.

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