THERE'S a topic which has been bubbling along under the surface for quite some time and which, by virtue of some more dramatic issues in other industries, has not yet seen dairy in the spotlight … but our time is coming.
Times have changed - and we have been somewhat left behind.
The consequences of not changing are significant, not only for the image of the entire industry but for individuals who become the targets of community outrage.
We now live in a 24/7 world. Smartphones, tablets, and numerous social media channels are available. Internet access is prolific - any picture, news item or ‘selfie’ is now only ‘a couple of clicks’ away from worldwide distribution.
When I was growing up, everyone I spoke to, almost without exception, could tell a story of an experience on a dairy farm, as a result of friends or a family network.
We saw animals slaughtered and talked about farm animals making their way from the paddock to the dinner table.
This seems to no longer be the case. Increasingly, often those influencing decision-making have no experience of agriculture or food production whatsoever.
So why is there a problem?
We live in a community with first world expectations. These expectations are increasingly based on a lack of understanding that ‘animals were harmed in the production of this food’.
What you and I might understand to be good practice, or even ‘best practice’, might not be viewed that way by others in the community who do not understand what we deal with, how and why.
Also, practices which might make you and I turn away, make others in the community absolutely furious that animals could be treated in such a way, and in our modern world it is very easy for them to share this anger, attract attention and gain support.
We have recently seen what happens when current community expectations meets ‘olde worlde’ treatment of animals.
Live exports were halted because the community was appalled by what it saw happening to animals. The industry knew about it and was too slow to act.
Aussiefarms.org.au has thousands of pictures of animals on commercial farms, many of which depict unacceptable treatment of production animals. The website lists pig farms – owners, addresses, maps – making each farm easily ‘accessible’.
Coles, Woolworths and the South Melbourne Market no longer provide consumer choice – selling only ‘cage free eggs’.
Supermarkets now sell RSPCA-endorsed chicken, pork and turkeys – reportedly netting the RSPCA many dollars in endorsement/certification fees. I wonder whose pockets this money is coming out of?
Formal activist groups range from the RSPCA - which is willing to work with industries (for a fee in some cases) - to groups with extreme views aiming to stop all livestock production for food.
In the United States we have seen many activists pose as farm staff for months to obtain footage which they can use to further their cause.
In simple terms, this means two things for dairy farmers.
One, we need to talk openly and transparently to the community. We need to explain that ‘animals were harmed in the making of this food’.
Two, we need to change some of our practices so we are beyond reproach in this modern, first world, urban-based economy – a place where a picture of what you do this morning could be spread around the world by lunch time.
Think about it.
United Dairyfarmers of Victoria’s (UDV) job is to run this critical discussion and set the scene for an industry to take responsibility for its own future, to ensure the Victorian dairy industry does everything it can to build and retain a reputation which allows us to produce milk profitably and responsibly and to be valued by the community in which we operate.
We have to engage with the community and we have to modify a number of farm practices so they are in line with current community expectations.
It is every dairy farmers’ responsibility to explain that we love and care for our animals and most of us find it absolutely gut-wrenching to actually ‘put down’ animals when we must; that we hate to see animals suffer – whatever the circumstance; that our cows are big and heavy and when they are sick or disabled, we have to use machines to move them in order to look after them properly.
We must explain that all mammals have to give birth in order to produce milk - some in our community simply don’t know this.
We need a market for calves which don’t have a place in our milk production systems – the alternative in unthinkable. Every step in the calf market system must be beyond reproach.
Australia has some of the most affordable, safe food in the world. We need to act in order to protect our privileged position of producing that food, both as an industry and as individuals.
So what practices expose us to criticism?
There are already videos circulating of unacceptable calf handling. Cattle prodders are not to be used on bobby calves. They leave a mark on the carcass and some abattoirs are reporting against Property Identification Codes (PIC).
Calving induction leaves our industry open to enormous criticism, not only from the more extreme activist elements, but also from the general community. This practice needs to cease in order to protect the industry reputation and to protect individual farmers.
All farms must acquire either an appropriately licensed firearm, or a captive bolt device. Other methods of humane calf destruction, while ‘best practice’, are not acceptable to the community, so we must change this – again, to protect both our industry reputation and individual farmers from the attacks which have happened in other industries.
‘Social licence’ is the concept that, as farmers running animal based food production systems, we act in a responsible manner, treating our animals in a way which meets the expectations of the community.
In return, the community understands and accepts we evolve with technology and community expectations to produce food in the best possible way.
If we have sufficient ‘social capital’ in the bank, developed over time through transparency and demonstrated willingness to change, the community and our consumers will forgive minor transgressions along the way.
But if we do not act responsibly in the eyes of the community, transgressions will be pounced on and the industry and individual transgressors will suffer.
I look forward to engaging with you all on this subject – and to another good year of outcomes that help grow our industry.
Tyran Jones is United Dairyfarmers of Victoria (UDV) president. He wrote this opinion piece for this month’s edition of the UDV newsletter.