Limited research currently exists comparing producer and consumer views of beef and dairy animal welfare, says Glynn Tonsor, livestock economist for Kansas State University, but a new study is now reviewing those similarities and differences in effort to pinpoint where producers in the industry might improve, identify areas for possible consumer engagement, and highlight existing points of agreement between producers and consumers.
With the help of Melissa McKendree, a doctoral agricultural economics student at K-State and a team of veterinarians and animal scientists, the two researchers have taken the lead in developing the comparative animal welfare reviews as livestock industries are increasingly pressured to change practices to comply with societal concerns.
In national surveys, cow-calf producers and consumers in the general public answered questions about their views of cattle animal welfare. Preliminary results indicated similarities in views between producers and the public, as well as knowledge gaps and differing views.
McKendree said a key finding in the study showed 65% of U.S. consumers reported they were concerned about the welfare of beef cattle in the United States. While most beef producers strongly disagreed that a tradeoff exists between profitability and animal welfare, consumers tended to believe that being more profitable means sacrificing on animal welfare.
"Producers believe there is a connection between profitability and animal welfare," she said. "So, a healthy animal is going to be more profitable."
Another major difference between the two groups was their views on providing overall care to cattle. While 73% of cow-calf producers believed that U.S. farms and ranches provide appropriate overall care to their cattle, only 39% of the public believed this to be true.
"We don't exactly know the reason for this gap and what the views are, but one hypothesis is that there's a difference in what consumers think appropriate overall care means," McKendree said. "Appropriate overall care to consumers, for instance, might be related to using or not using antibiotics or hormones.
"Conversely, producers might think that overall appropriate care is making sure that [the cattle] are not sick, giving them appropriate feed and water, and protecting them from the elements," she said.
McKendree said these preliminary results show opportunities for cow-calf producers and the general beef industry to communicate with the public about practices on farms and ranches. Having a discussion about items such as appropriate care would help more clearly define it with expectations of both producers and consumers.
While differences in views did exist, the study also showed producers and consumers are on the same page on some items. Both groups – 72% of producers and 57% of consumers – generally did not agree with statements indicating that low beef prices are more important than the well-being of cattle.
Both producers and consumers picked the same top three most effective and practical actions to improve animal welfare based on nine total options. Those top three selected include: provide access to fresh, clean feed and water appropriate for the animal's physiological state; provide adequate comfort through the use of shade, windbreaks and ventilation assuring clean, dry, sanitary environmental conditions for cattle; and promptly treat or euthanize all injured or sick animals.
The survey showed 80% to 90% of producers said they have already implemented these top three selected practical applications on their operations.
"Out of all of the practices we investigated, those are probably the least hands-on that would need to be changed on the farm or ranch within in the industry today," McKendree said.
Requiring employees to complete a consistent training program, castrating and dehorning with pain control, requiring third-party verification that appropriate animal care is being provided on the farm, and developing a herd health plan with a veterinarian are examples of more hands-on changes that were listed, but did not rank as high.
Glimpse into the future
Tonsor said one of the "take homes" from the study is that the issue of animal welfare is in the eye of the beholder and includes many different practices: providing pain control, using antibiotics, and providing adequate feed and shade as some examples.
"There's a growing list of third-party verifications that are available to verify that proper animal welfare is in place at different stages in the cattle industry," Tonsor said.
He added that these verifications could allow for broader marketing claims on animal welfare, such as certified labels on retail meat products.
"I envision our work, once it's analyzed and out for full public dissemination and absorption, to be useful as supplemental input in guiding the prioritization of those protocols and third-party efforts," he said.
The items of agreement between the public and producers would be comparatively easy to add to those third-party verifications, Tonsor said. A bigger challenge is incorporating and addressing those areas of disagreement between the public and producers today.
"That's where our work comes in, highlighting some of those issues or on-farm practices that might be either a threat to the industry with no action required or an opportunity to get the public up to speed with producers," he said.
The study was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The preliminary findings were presented at the 2014 K-State Risk and Profit Conference in Manhattan Aug. 21-22.