Farm animal care in spotlight at Livestock Care Conference

Cross-section of industry stakeholders gather to discuss animal welfare priorities.

Pushing the pace of progress through enhanced collaboration and engagement was a central focus as speakers, farmers and a cross-section of industry stakeholders gathered March 22-23 in Olds, Alb., for the Livestock Care Conference, hosted by Alberta Farm Animal Care (AFAC).

“There are a number of reasons to support farm animal care,” Oneil Carlier, minister of Alberta Agriculture & Forestry, told the 160 attendees. “Top of the list is that it’s the right thing to do.”

AFAC provides a coordinated approach for all areas of livestock production to work together to advance and promote responsible livestock care.

“Working in a spirit of collaboration is what AFAC has always been about. This is what we will continue with our increasingly broad and diverse membership,” Dr. Angela Greter, AFAC executive director, said. “At the same time, we have taken important steps forward with an updated organizational structure and renewed approaches for the future.”

Greter said part of AFAC’s role is to provide a hub for two-way communication and engagement both within and outside the industry, including with consumers. “There has been a lot of progress in a number of areas in farm animal care. We are looking forward to building on this foundation,” she added.

Thinking in broader terms about the positive environment required for a high level of farm animal care is essential, said international speaker and thought leader Brenda Schoepp, who highlighted the key interrelationship between human and animal welfare, including the critical yet sometimes overlooked role of farm employees.

“Welfare is closely tied to stewardship, and we need to make sure we are empowering the people involved so they are able to best care for the animals, through education, training and encouraging a positive and rewarding experience,” Schoepp said, adding that this supports competent decision-makers who are trustworthy and exemplify high levels of morality.

Calling morality the “cultural DNA” that links animals, farm workers and the general public together, she said, “If we are to become the most trusted food source in the world – and I believe that’s really the goal of Canada in agriculture – we need to ask ourselves, 'Are we willing to create a cultural shift that honors both the people and the animals that are entrusted to our care?'”

According to Dr. Jennifer Walker of Dean Foods, the dynamics among politics, policy, profit and people can either help and hinder farm animal care progress. Navigating those dynamics to support mutual understanding and advancement through common interests is a key challenge for the livestock industry, but one that she said can and must be met.

“Animal welfare is foundational to sustainability. It’s the core of everything we do in the livestock industry,” Walker said. "We need to keep this always as a top priority.”

The sharp rise in public awareness and interest of animal welfare issues makes it imperative that agriculture is both responsible and responsive, Dr. Alexandra Harlander of the University of Guelph said in providing an overview of hot topics in the poultry industry, covering everything from advances in housing systems to insights from animal behavior studies.

“No matter what specific changes industry implements, there are always pros and cons,” Harlander said. “The keys are to keep animal welfare at the center of our decision-making.”

A number of big-picture viewpoints were offered during a lively “Bear Pit” session featuring a diverse panel. Along with Dr. Greter, the panel included Darren Vanstone of World Animal Protection, Jackie Wepruk of the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC), Brandy Street of the BC SPCA and Michelle Follensbee of the Animal Welfare Branch of Alberta Agriculture & Forestry.

“Everybody has an opinion on what animal welfare should look like,” Street said. “You’re going to get a broad range of views across the spectrum, but I think what’s important is that, no matter where we sit on that spectrum, we can come together and discuss our views to find ways to move ahead based on our common values.”

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