How do YOUR employees treat your cows when you're not there?
Recently, an undercover video was released showing animal mistreatment at a slaughterhouse in California. The video showed images of cows being treated inhumanely prior to slaughter. In recent years, several such undercover videos have been released, whereby an "employee" hired by a farm or agricultural business (in this case, a slaughterhouse) secretly records happenings at the business, waits until they have enough video material, and then releases the video through mass media. Many times these "employees" of the farm are actually paid employees of such organizations as PETA, Mercy for Animals, and the like. While we as livestock producers are tempted to take a very defensive stance, perhaps there are some things we can learn from what we see.
If you are a dairy producer who does not have employees on your farm, you have full control over how you treat your animals. If you have employees, do you know how your cows are being treated when you are not there? As an owner or manager, you can't always be watching over your employees, and you shouldn't have to be. You can help give yourself peace of mind by creating a written Responsible Animal Care Policy, adopting the policy into your farm's use, and by setting a good example of proper animal care on your farm.
Have a Responsible Animal Care Policy on your farm, and put it in writing. You may want to consult with your legal representative when writing your policy, but it's important that you get it done. Saying you have a policy, and actually having one in writing, are two very different things. Employees need to know that it's NOT acceptable to mistreat the animals on your farm. Think of how YOU want YOUR animals treated, even when you're not there. Your Responsible Animal Care Policy should explain that employees are responsible for their own actions. It should also state that if one employee witnesses another employee mistreating an animal, it is THEIR responsibility to report the incident to the owner or manager of the farm immediately. This helps keep everyone accountable for controlling their own actions, and for checking their coworker's actions as well.
Adopt the Responsible Animal Care Policy into action on your farm. Don't just put it in the employee handbook and leave the handbook to collect dust on the shelf. It is important to communicate how you feel about animal care on your farm with your employees. If there are language barriers in place, consider hiring an interpreter. The policy needs to be explained to every employee, so each employee understands the importance of treating all animals humanely on your farm. Don't assume they understand what you mean. Ask them to make sure they understand. Hold a refresher course on the topic every six months so it stays fresh in everyone's mind.
Part of adopting your policy into action means that employees must understand it is acceptable to walk away from an animal that is frustrating them, or to ask for help. The first time bringing a fresh heifer through the milking parlor can be a challenging task at best. If an employee can feel themselves losing their temper, they need to tell their coworker and leave the area. Just a minute or two in the break room to cool down can give a fresh perspective on how to deal with a problem animal. I'm sure we've all experienced that one cow or heifer that really pushes our patience to the maximum. Employees will ask a coworker for help or take a cool-down if they know their employer feels it's important.
Lead by example. Show employees how to properly treat your animals through your own actions. Employees will notice if you don't practice what you preach, and that goes for animal care as well as other policies. Demonstrate with your actions how important responsible animal care is, and your employees will truly understand that you mean what is written in their employee handbook.
Leading by example also means adopting a zero tolerance policy for animal mishandling. It is important to follow through if an employee is caught treating your animals in an unacceptable manner. Mistreatment of the heart of your dairy - your cows - should be grounds for dismissal. You cannot expect employees to care for your animals responsibly if you do not hold them accountable for their actions.
Now, more than ever, it is important for dairy farm owners to have written employee handbooks explaining important policies, procedures and other information. It is imperative that dairy farm owners implement a written Responsible Animal Care Policy, adopt it into action on their farm, and set a good example for the animal care they desire to see.