What makes a dairy farm sustainable?
The definition of sustainability would suggest the future of Canadian dairy farms would rest heavily on environmental, economic and social factors. Farms need to respect the environment, make money and also reflect the aspirations of consumers and their growing awareness of animal welfare.
In an era of increasing scrutiny of farming’s social licence, University of British Columbia animal welfare professor Marina von Keyserlingk is working to better understand the demands society will place on dairy operations and how the industry can best respond to maintain freedom to operate.
“The dairy industry is obviously driven in large part by economics, and there’s been…quite a bit of concern about getting their heads wrapped around the environmental aspect of sustainability,” explains von Keyserlingk. “But really, the social pillar, for the most part, has been silent.”
But the discussion of animal welfare and how to manage the potential impact is growing, led in part by Dairy Farmers of Canada which has funded the UBC program since 1997.
Speaking at the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar in March in Red Deer, AB, von Keyserlingk explained that a big part of her work is trying to understand the public’s values and what they believe to be important. She’s working to understand the public’s perception of dairy farming, contrasting it what really happens on farms and looking for disconnects.
She explains that it’s important to understand public expectations and what could happen to the industry it those expectations are not realized. For example, she notes that the public is largely unaware that cows and calves are separated at birth. She’s not suggesting that producers keep cows and calves together, but part of her job is to do research to help identify what parts of the bond are important. From these conclusions, it may be possible to make scientific recommendations on how to best manage cows and calves to meet farming needs and public demands.
The other big issues that will continue to gain traction with the public is access to pasture. “If you look at nearly every milk cartoon, what is the picture?” asks von Keyserlingk. “It’s a picture of a little red barn and cows on pasture. We don’t have really good data in Canada, but the last U.S. census showed that in the United States…less than 5% of all dairy cows — lactating dairy cows — have access to pasture. That is not the picture that the public thinks.”
This could have serious implications for farmers,” says von Keyserlingk. “When you have this disconnect, what you’re ultimately messing with is trust.”
von Keyserlingk doesn’t have all the answers, but she’ll be studying what aspects of pasture are most important to the cow. Some of her work has already scientifically documented how cows prefer to stay inside on a sunny days to seek shade and venture outdoors at night. “But she still eats the TMR that the farmer gives her and she really likes that. We’re trying to understand that.”
She is also looking to determine whether pasture or fresh air is most important to cattle. Depending on the answer, von Keyserlingk says the dairy industry may be able to adopt exercise lows to meet potential public opposition to confinement housing.