Animal Welfare in Organic Agriculture
Dr. Meggan Hain is an animal care specialist for CROPP Cooperative. Born to a farming family in South Africa, Meggan received her Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Science and a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Ohio State University. Meggan is passionate about working with farms to improve management practices, prevent disease and improve farm productivity. With an eye toward preventing problems proactively, Meggan saw animal welfare as a future challenge for the dairy industry and an opportunity for improvement. She went back to school, this time at the University of Pennsylvania, to do a residency in animal welfare with a focus on dairy cattle.
Contrary to what you might assume, there are actually rising numbers of women in the field of large animal medicine today. Meggan says they “are finding quite a niche in working with dairy cows” as a result of their attention to detail and gentle approach to handling livestock. This gender shift, and the recognition women are receiving in the animal care industry, is exciting for Meggan. (Meggan’s colleague Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines—another woman in large animal medicine—has also been on Rootstock Radio. Listen to her latest episode here!)
“The US is quite different from a lot of the other Western countries in the world in the fact that there aren’t that many laws on the books that do focus on animal welfare—particularly on farm animals,” says Meggan. She agrees with last week’s guest, Melissa Hughes, that we need clearer expectations and guidelines around animal welfare in organic agriculture.
She points out that, for many farmers, livestock are much more like business partners than family members. And for farmers upholding excellent animal welfare standards, this means almost a more respectful relationship than a person might have with their house pet. “A large part of the quality of life for any individual comes from what their natural physiology is,” says Meggan. “I appreciate working with farmers a lot of the time—as I get more and more into animal welfare—because they’re actually much better behaviorists of their own animals oftentimes than we are of our cats and dogs at home.”
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Meggan Hain, an animal specialist who works with many, many farmers on animal care and has done it for a long time. Thank you so much for being with us today, Meggan.
MEGGAN HAIN: Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to join you!
TM: Dr. Meggan Hain, an animal care specialist, actually works for CROPP Co-op with over 2,000 farmers, and that’s a big job, isn’t it, Meggan? Do you get to see all of them?
MH: I don’t necessarily. So we have about 2,000 farmers; about 1,600 of those are dairy and then the rest are egg farmers, beef farmers, pork farmers, and we have a lot of [unclear—“produce and growers”?]. So that’s an awful lot of farmers to get to visit with for one person. So what I usually do is I will get out and visit as many farmers as I can, and then I rely fairly heavily on our field staff.
So we have a staff of about 26 members that live all over the country, so they live in the district with the farms that they work with. And they’re the ones who generally manage the day-to-day relationships with the farmers. So I talk a lot with them about what we, sort of, are seeing on the farms. You know, are there some farms that need some help and that, that we can reach out to on a one-on-one basis?
TM: So, Meggan, just curious, I’ve met a lot of veterinary medicine doctors and oftentimes the majority of them seem to be men, and I always have wondered—I know that you come from a family farm in South Africa, but tell us a little bit about your history, and how did you get interested in working with big animals?
MH: Certainly, certainly. So I was born and raised on a family farm in South Africa. We mostly farmed pigs, but I always had an interest into the dairy cattle and that. And we immigrated to the United States back in 1992 and settled in southern Kentucky. I graduated from high school in Kentucky and then went to university at the Ohio State University up in Columbus, Ohio, where I focused on dairy practice, or dairy farming, and worked at the university teaching dairy during my two years in undergrad. I got into the vet school there at Ohio State and went to and did a DVM degree with a focus on food animal medicine. So that’s all about the farm animals and that—dairy cows, beef cows, pigs, sheep and goats—and sort of focused fairly generally, although Ohio is a pretty big dairy state and a lot of the emphasis during our studies was on dairy cattle.
So in the vet school there are 120 seats each year. And actually while I was going through, a large majority of those—so about 100—were all women. So a lot of the vet schools these days are a lot more female vets coming out and that. Now that’s going into, sort of, large animals. So focusing on working with the big animals, it’s a fairly even, usually closer to a 50/50 male and female getting out. But there’s a lot more women actually going into large animal medicine.
TM: Well, I’m so happy that you’re correcting me on this!
MH: One of the interesting things we’re finding is that women are actually—whether it comes to dairy farming or going into dairy medicine and that—are finding quite a niche in working with dairy cows. So a lot of the things that we bring to farming or to medicine is the sort of attention to detail, that little bit more, sort of, caring approach to working with the cattle, working with our patients. And it’s starting to get recognized in the greater industry, which is something that really thrills me.
TM: You know, Meggan, that is so wonderful to hear that so many women—and it just makes so much sense. I mean, after all, women have that “mom” gene whether they’re mothers or not, that caring gene, I would like to say, so it just makes so much sense. There’s a huge difference, isn’t there, though, between being a vet for big animals versus the smaller animals?
MH: Absolutely. So a lot of my colleagues that have gone out to become, sort of, small animal vets, a lot of the time their day-to-day is working with sort of mums and dads of dogs and cats. So working with people who have pets as part of the family and part of the household. And a lot of times those relationships, they’re dealing with animals that are family members. So a lot of that association is much, much more emotionally driven. So people have a much closer attachment to their pets, and when they’re going through treating them, that comes through in the medicine and in the treatment.
So I always say as a small animal vet you’re part vet and part psychologist. So you’ve got to have these good understandings of social relationships and that, and really working the pet owners as well as their pets when we’re going through. As a large animal vet, we’re dealing usually with farmers that have almost more of a business relationship with the animals that are there. They’re much more partners rather than necessarily members of the family.
Now don’t get me wrong, our farmers definitely have the upmost appreciation for their animals. And in a lot of ways they have an almost more respectful relationship. They could—a lot of our farmers are very, very knowledgeable about the animals that they work with. And they understand those animals in a much, much deeper level than our average dog or cat owner, so they understand the emotional needs and how these animals behave. They understand the nutritional needs. They understand a lot of the health needs of these individual animals and that, as well as those animals as a herd, as a group together.
When I start a conversation working with a farmer, you’re starting at an almost higher level. Their understanding is much closer to where ours is as a veterinarian. So my conversation often with farmers is much, much more on a higher knowledge base. So, what are we doing with these animals—they already come with so much knowledge of these individual animals and their farm and that, that it can be quite an interesting conversation.
It is certainly something that when we’re working with a lot of the farm animals, everyone says, you know, that’s business and it is much more detached. But yet working with our farmers, there is a strong emotional attachment with the animals that are there. And also with the work that they’re doing. All the farmers that I know are very, very proud that they’re producing a food, that they’re going out and actually feeding the rest of the world and the rest of the community. And they take that responsibility very heavily.
So it’s definitely something that [with] every farmer that I’ve worked with out there and that, that’s one of the things that they think about when they’re going out on these freezing cold days, when they’re trudging out in the mud to go and help a cow get up and get into the barn and that. There’s things that drive them, and a lot of it is their pride in the work that they’re doing.
TM: When I think about animal care and animal well-being, and this is definitely a big topic for us right now as we face this Organic Livestock Poultry Practices, OLPP ruling from the USDA that they were not going to allow this new harmonized practices in organic, or sanction it. I wanted to ask you, isn’t there already a very strong animal welfare regulation in the United States that, is it not being followed? Maybe you could tell us a little bit about what already exists for the protection of animals in the U.S.
MH: So the U.S. is quite different from a lot of the other Western countries in the world in the fact that there aren’t that many laws on the books that do focus on animal welfare, particularly on farm animals. So there is the American Animal Welfare law [Act] which focuses a lot more on laboratory animals and teaching animals. It does look at farm animals but it doesn’t really focus too in-depth on farm animals. Now, individual states, particularly California and that, will have specific legislation on laws like battery cages for chickens or farrowing crates for sows. But overall we’re quite different from the rest of the Western world in the fact that there aren’t that many animal welfare laws on the books. In the U.S. there’s much, much more of a focus on animal welfare that’s driven by outside companies or outside groups. So it’s much, much more of a private industry–driven development.
Now, looking at the original organic rule, there is definitely language in there related to animal welfare. But a lot of the language, the way it was originally written… So the NOP, the original National Organic Program rule and language, was one of the very earliest outlines for this is how we’re going to create guidelines for growing food and farming; this is how we’re going to create guidelines related to animal care and related to crop and pasture management, related to how an individual farms.
So it was very early in that, in setting up the guidelines and that. And they took the approach initially of being a lot more open in the way that the guidelines were written, with the idea that we didn’t want to stymie innovation within a lot of these farms, and we didn’t want to put too much of an onerous rule on there that would get in the way of good farmers. One of the challenges there is that they do, in the NOP, talk about animal welfare but a lot of the language is fairly open and general. The challenge then is translating to consumers as they’re going out there, what does this mean? What does the sort of language really mean? Because it’s not particularly specific. And then also, as we’re going through and looking on farms, what does that look like on a farm if I’m going through say, alright, we’re looking at how an animal is housed and that. What do the guidelines really actually mean in measurable approaches and that, on [unclear—“looking at”?] farms?
So it was brilliant legislation in the sense in the fact that it [unclear] rule and the fact that it set out these guidelines. But as the world of animal welfare has really evolved and a lot of the approaches to that, we’ve seen a lot more movements that have said, okay, we can achieve a much, much more repeatable style of farming, or a much, much more repeatable way of doing things by being a lot more clear in what the expectations are and that. So with the OLPP, that was our approach to going through and saying, alright, based on how this rule has really worked, these are things that we feel we need to be a little bit more clear about. So it set about much clearer guidelines so that the farmers and consumers both understood what we really meant by good animal care on organic farms.
So one of the challenges with that being withdrawn is that now we need to look at how are we going to create that clear guideline or clear designation so both consumers and farmers know what we’re looking for and what we’re talking about when we’re talking about animal care on organic farms.
TM: Well, Melissa Hughes, who we interviewed on the Organic Livestock [and] Poultry Practices, called OLPP, and she suggested that there definitely were producers—poultry producers—who were afraid that the standards that were going to be set for organic would kind of drift over into conventional. The U.S. seems to be so far behind on these standards. I mean, isn’t it true that some of the standards the OLPP was asking for perhaps should be adopted by conventional, non-organic poultry producers?
MH: Certainly. Some of the standards that were outlined in the OLPP were much more set for organic style farming. So we’re looking at guidelines for outdoor access, and what are we expecting when we’re talking about chickens and outdoor access for them—what will that really look like? So a lot of the guidelines that were set in there were much, much more specific to sort of organic-style housing. But there were a few things that they talked about in there that would absolutely be something that not only would be a good goal for conventional, but is actually also being talked about by some animal groups that are starting to work with conventional.
So for example, one of the things that we’re looking at is square footage per bird. It’s sort of guidelines that are set down by, in the OLPP as three pounds per square foot, and the guidelines that they’re looking to set conventional will be six pounds per square foot if the OLPP does come through. And that’s actually going to be really on the cutting edge of what we’re looking at within animal care and that on organic farms.
One of the big challenges that we ran into for that, and one of the big challenges for animal care and animal welfare in the U.S., is that there is definitely this pushback of “We don’t want to see animal welfare legislation.” And that was certainly one of the arguments against allowing the OLPP to go ahead, would be that it would essentially be animal welfare legislation even if it was specific to the organic industry. And the concern was that that would then start the trend and lead to animal welfare legislation that would affect the conventional industry as well.
TM: Well, you know, it doesn’t make sense to me, because when I look at how many of my friends and of the public have pets, are a part of their family, as you said earlier, is there really that big of a difference in the intelligence, the emotions, the way that big animals are? Are smaller animals—
MH: That’s an interesting question, and I think it’s a very tricky question and something that I catch myself, having gone through and done the degree in veterinary medicine and then also studied animal welfare. And one of the things that I find very interesting—you know, we talk a lot about consumers and a lot of the general public, their paradigm or their sort of understanding of animals is these dogs and cats that we share our house with. And we would like to think that we have a great bond with these animals and we really understand them. But what’s really interesting is that the more you get into actually looking at animal behavior and even animal behavior specific to those animals, a lot of what we do with our pets at home, actually, is completely against what their behavior actually wants to, is good with.
I mean, you think about dogs and cats that spend a good portion of their time home alone. These are very, very social animals, and the idea of them being very isolated for a good portion of time, it’s against their nature. And then we look at the trend of obesity within American pets—that’s essentially poor welfare in a lot of those cases. But the tricky part is that because we have that close relationship a lot of the times, we don’t always recognize issues, animal care issues, even within the species that we spend on a day-to-day basis.
And then you take that over and look at farm animal species and that, that a lot of the time the general public doesn’t necessarily have as close of a relationship with and that. And the behaviors of those animals are even going to be quite different to those [unclear—than?] cats and dogs. And the idea of being able to understand what the needs are of these animals and what their social requirements are, without having any understanding of that, can be quite difficult. And it’s certainly something that, working with a lot of our farmers that work with those animals on a daily basis, I often find they are far better at reading the behaviors of those animals, of understanding what the emotional and behavioral needs of those animals are.
So it’s definitely something I appreciate working with farmers a lot of the time, even as I get more and more into animal welfare, because they’re actually much better behaviorists of their own animals oftentimes than we are of our cats and dogs at home. I mean, it’s one of those things that always get scientists nervous when we ask, do we know what an animal is thinking? Because we don’t. We can read their behaviors, and it does take a lot of science and watching and looking at physiological measures to even try and start to read behaviors, and even then we’re only starting to get an inkling of an understanding of what are the motivations of these animals? What are the things that do add to quality of life for them and that? So it’s definitely something we always get a little nervous when we ask, what are these animals thinking or feeling, because we don’t know, not truly yet.
TM: You brought up a point that’s interesting, and that is that caring for animals and caring for the welfare of animals and the wellness of animals starts with the way that we breed them and the genetics. For example, in the farming side, Holsteins were bred to have poor ankles because they aren’t expected to go out and walk, they’re expected to just stand. And tell me if I’m wrong about this: fast-growing hen breeds have legs that don’t really support—not in the egg world but in the poultry-for-eating world—they have oversized breasts and so they actually can’t grow really well. And apparently, I guess, the same things are happening for pets. Do you consider that part of how we should look at animal welfare?
MH: Absolutely. It’s certainly something that a large part of the quality of life of any individual should come from what their natural physiology is and that. And one of the things that we’ve discovered as, you know, when we’re looking at animal species and animal breeds, is that human beings are actually a very poor judge of what leads to a good quality of life and a good sort of physiology on these particular animals. When we look at any of the species you’ve mentioned, a lot of that has been a focus on either one or very few traits. So it’s not necessarily been that we’ve selected for bad traits. It’s been more that we’ve been focused on traits that are more valuable and haven’t realized that along with those traits we get secondary things that are sort of an issue. And we end up having feet and leg scores that are more of an issue when we’re looking for these very tall Holsteins. So it’s not weak ankles necessarily, but it’s more just sort of height and that.
When we look at some of our dog breeds—I mean, you look at golden retrievers, we look at German shepherds, some of the most popular dog breeds that they’ve really focused on. Within our Golden Retrievers they’ve focused on coat quality and things like that, and yet we have secondary traits that come along, like very poor eyes or bad elbows or a higher tendency towards certain types of cancer that we’ve essentially selected for without intending to because we’ve been focused on aesthetic or sort of cosmetic traits. When we look at German shepherds and the idea that they’ve been focused so much on just the slope that the animal’s standing at, and that’s led to a secondary selection for very bad hips and things like that.
So certainly one of those things that a lot of the times it’s not necessarily something that we select for bad traits; it’s that we tend to focus on a limited number of things. Rather than saying, I’m going to select for a healthy animal, which is something that a lot of breeders these days are looking much more at—you know, broader spectrum, I just want a healthy animal rather than I’m going to focus on certain individual traits.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Meggan Hain, an animal specialist who is a veterinarian, who works with large animals but, as we’re hearing now, knows quite a bit about small animals as well. And what we’ve done genetically to alter our animals isn’t necessarily always in their best interest.
MH: One thing I just want to jump back on is when we’re talking about genetics and that, most genetics when we’re talking animals, it’s not genetically altered. It’s essentially just normal breeding or selection.
TM: Right, it’s not biotech.
MH: Certainly not biotech. And pretty much all of our pet animals or farm animals we’re talking about are going to just be by natural breeding, and it’s not genetic alteration at this point.
TM: There’s a couple of questions that certainly I wanted to make sure to ask, and that is, what is it about Europe, particularly the United Kingdom, where they seem to be much more aware and compassionate about their animal welfare regulations?
MH: That’s—I mean, a lot of that, and I’m afraid to say I don’t have a really good answer for that because a lot of it comes down to sort of social science and social dynamics. One of the things that I think is a bigger part of it is that there’s certainly a little bit more of an awareness of what is going on with the farm animals and that. But there’s also a much greater social conscience in a lot of our European countries than what we tend to see in the U.S. So any of our social topics, whether we’re talking animals, whether we’re talking children and that, whether we’re talking the care of the less fortunate and that, it’s certainly something we tend to see a little bit more of an awareness over in Europe. And I suspect—as I said, it’s not an area of specialty for me—but I suspect that’s part of the reason that we’ve seen a lot more of an emphasis in Europe on animal welfare.
It is certainly something, as we’re going through and studying animal welfare and that, studying approaches and studying what the latest social belief is or the current social belief is and the current legislation or the current set of expectations in each of these countries, I always think that we are about 10 years behind England and the rest of Europe in what we’re expecting and what we’re looking at. Which is, it’s good and bad. The disadvantage is you always feel as if we’re trying to catch up. The advantage is that there’s been a few trends that have gone through and we essentially get to learn from their mistakes. So some legislation that comes out, as it goes into practice on the farms, we find that they’re sort of tougher to implement or that there are unforeseen challenges; that the advantage of being a little behind is you get to learn from their essentially sort of errors or from their mistakes.
TM: I guess my last question was going to be about fish. No one ever thinks about the fish, and I just wondered, do you think that it’s logical that maybe there should be some humane thinking about fish?
MH: Absolutely. And there’s actually, fish are one of the—strange enough to say—one of the hottest topics in the animal welfare world. So there is actually a lot of conversation going on right now about what does good welfare look like when we’re talking about a species like fish that are much, much more different from us in their physiology and in their response to the world. So in a lot of cases we don’t necessarily feel as close of a connection with fish, but yet they’re a living species and that. So what does good animal care and good animal welfare look like when we’re talking about fish? So there’s absolutely a lot of conversations and there’s a lot of science going on looking at how do we end up sort of reading whether a fish is in a much, much more positive environment in a certain pool design, or whether we’re looking at too much stress in certain situations, and how do we read that in that particular species? So absolutely, there’s interesting things going on right now in fish.
TM: Well, Meggan, thank you so much for taking the time and talking with us. And you certainly have opened up all the different topics that I hadn’t thought of a lot of them, especially on the genetics side, that have to do with animal care. So I really appreciate how you’ve introduced us all to just how deep this topic and just what a full-spectrum look at all those issues would entail. So thank you so much, Meggan, for educating us today.
MH: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, Theresa, and thank you very much for the time!