COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Education, not regulation, and changing attitudes, not facilities, are the keys to improving animal well-being on the farm.
James Kinder, chair of Ohio State University's Department of Animal Sciences, said that the approach taken by the Humane Society of the United States to push for animal welfare legislation in Ohio is not an effective means of change.
"They are looking at it from the wrong perspective. Improvements in animal welfare have to be done through education instead of regulation," said Kinder. "It's changing the attitudes and behaviors of the producers and the animal handlers that, at the end of the day, will have the greatest impact on animal well-being in agricultural production."
For the past several months the Humane Society of the United States has been advocating for animal welfare legislation in Ohio, similar to what was passed in California last year. California's Proposition 2 mandates that as of January 1, 2015, it shall be a misdemeanor for any person to confine a pregnant pig, calf raised for veal, or egg-laying hen in a manner not allowing the animal to turn around freely, stand up, lie down, and fully extend its limbs.
The HSUS Ohio referendum specifically targets the laying hen and egg production industries, both of which rank second in the nation with a combined estimated value of over $650 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
If such legislation were to pass in Ohio, it would have a profound economic impact on Ohio's agriculture industry, from the livestock sector to field crop production. Luther Tweeten, an Ohio State University agricultural economist, proposes that the costs to the poultry industry would increase by at least 20 percent, resulting in the loss of nearly 8,000 jobs and leaving Ohio uncompetitive in the market. The move would also impact field crop production, diminishing demand for corn and soybeans, since poultry consumes 22 percent of the state's crop production.
"The bottom line is that if change would occur, it would make the cost of production prohibitive in Ohio," said Kinder.
He added that there is more at stake than Ohio's agriculture that is not being factored in.
"The greatest concern to me from a long-term perspective is food security, which includes plentiful amounts of safe food. If the economics are such that we can no longer afford to produce food in our own country, then it will come from someplace else, and then we'll lose control of it from a food security standpoint," said Kinder.
In addition, the impact of such legislation would eventually trickle down to the consumer, some of whom in today's economic crisis may not be able to afford the potential food cost increases.
"The argument used against this is that systems would be put in place to keep the cost of production down if alternative systems became predominant, but that is simply not the case," said Kinder. "The costs may decrease some after wider-spread implementation of alternative systems, but not to the extent that we have with conventional production systems we currently use."
Animal welfare is becoming a recognizable component of animal production systems, but the approach to its implementation is what is most important for making the most impact, both for the producer and consumer.
"Education is one area producers can wrap their minds around, and they've embraced the importance of animal welfare on the farm," said Jeanne Osborne, program coordinator in the Department of Animal Sciences. "They've taken an interest in animal welfare and invested time and money to make improvements in how the animals are handled. Helping people gain that understanding provides for the greatest impact on animal well-being."
Ohio State University Extension has been leading efforts to educate the farming sector on how to get the most out of animal productivity in a nurturing environment.
Led by OSU Extension animal welfare specialist, Naomi Botheras, the organization has launched animal welfare training programs for swine and dairy producers. The ProHand programs for dairy cows and pigs are cognitive behavioral intervention training programs that train producers and workers on developing and implementing the right attitudes and beliefs toward how they handle the animals. So far, farms that have participated in the programs have noticed an increase in animal productivity due to the behavioral changes of the workers. Under the ProHand Dairy training, producers have seen a 5 percent increase in milk production, and under the ProHand Swine training, producers have seen an increase in sow reproductive performance of one piglet per sow per year.
"When it comes to handling animals, people tend to use long-established behaviors, what we tend to do every day through force of habit," said Botheras. "What we are striving to do is change those behaviors, undo that way of thinking and get people to realize just how significant harmful negative interactions can be."
The lack of an educational component in any animal welfare legislation would do little to change animal welfare behaviors, while creating more economic challenges during a time when food animal producers are already struggling, said Kinder.