An open letter to all those concerned and outraged by the Conklin Dairy Farm incident…

Please allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Kathy Swift and I grew up on a dairy farm in northern Virginia.  My parents milked 100 Holstein and Jersey cows and I spent many years in 4-H traveling around to county, state and national shows exhibiting my dairy cattle.  I chose to have a career in agriculture and in 1997, I received my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree.  I have been a cattle veterinarian in northern Florida and southern Georgia for the last 13 years.  I would like to take a moment to address the actions in the Conklin Dairy Farm video as a member of the veterinary community.

First of all, I would like to apologize on behalf of the dairy business.  I am terribly sorry that the video has caused many of you to reconsider consuming dairy and beef products.  I am sorry that you had to consider whether all animals were treated this way.  I am sorry that you had to wonder whether the dairy products in your refrigerator were produced by cattle that have been treated humanely and with great care and respect.  If anything good comes out of this incident, it is that the dairy business has made it clear that we will not tolerate such behavior .  It is morally reprehensible and we do not condone it in any way, shape or form.  Period.

There are many organizations claiming to be animal advocates and fighting for the rights and well being of farm animals.  They would have you believe that the agriculture industry has no concern for its animals or their welfare.  They would have you believe that we are not listening to consumers.  They would have you believe that we are not going to change.  I am here to share several facts with you:

The veterinary community continues to learn and educate farmers about proper animal care and animal welfare.    More and more research dollars are spent annually to learn how animals process and react to pain and, more specifically, what we can do improve.  For example, a study was recently done at Kansas State University using thermal imaging as a way to assess animals’ response to pain.  From that information, we can learn how to handle cattle more appropriately and treat them with suitable medications as situations deem necessary.

The American Association of Bovine Practitioners recently conducted a survey assessing veterinarians’ use of pain relieving medications in promoting animal welfare and proper animal care.  Currently, only one non steroidal anti inflammatory drug (NSAID) is approved for use in cattle.  More options are needed.  The information collected by this survey will prove valuable in continuing to work with the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical manufacturers to allow us more legal access to medicines.  This will allow farmers, ranchers and veterinarians to enhance animal welfare without risking the safety of the food supply.

Most recently, Kansas State University hosted a Beef Cattle Welfare symposium to scientists, veterinarians and ranchers to discuss current thoughts and needs within the farming community.  Quoting Dan Thomson, DVM, PhD, director of the Beef Cattle Institute at Kansas State University, “(this year) we talked about issues. We talked about confidence in an industry. We know we do a dang good job of raising cattle and we do everything at a very high level. But we want to get better every day. We have more openness, more transparency. We are focusing on the future and outcome- based measures for change.”  Conference speaker, Temple Grandin, PhD, a pioneer in proper cattle handling and animal welfare, spoke about “How to Set Up and Implement an Auditing System”.  She has been instrumental in making positive impacts on how cattle are handled and processed for slaughter.

On a local level, I continue to educate my clients about what they can do improve animal welfare situations on their farms.  I show them how to use a local anesthetic when dehorning calves to prevent pain.  I continue to use a tranquilizer with pain killer activity whenever I am castrating calves.  I educate farmers and ranchers on the appropriate times to use pain relieving medications.  We discuss ways to handle and work with cattle to present them with the least amount of stress.  Animals that are well cared for are much healthier and cost the farm less overall in reduced health care costs and improved efficiency.

On a larger local level, I was asked and actively participated in helping to formulate an animal welfare audit for the regional dairy farm milk cooperative.  This audit consisted of a series of questions addressing animal housing, veterinary care, nutrition, milking machine and milking parlor maintenance, calf and heifer care, and personnel training and education.  By March 2010, all members of the milk cooperative had been audited by a veterinarian and achieved a passing score of 90 percent or above.  (Now I realize that you could be skeptical here and say that those passing scores are not valid, but I don’t know of any veterinarian willing to risk his or her license to pass a farm as humanely taking care of their animals if they are not.)  This form was not requested by any organization.  It was instead a step taken by the milk cooperative in response to public concern and questions about animal welfare.

The take away message from all this:  agriculture IS listening.

I could go on here, but I will instead encourage you to go straight to the source.  Who didn’t learn at a young age that messages get twisted and misconstrued simply going from one person to the next?  I don’t want you to only listen to me about animal welfare.  Meet the farmers in your community.  I persuade you not to just ask the easy questions, but ask the hard ones too.  The difficult questions are what get good open dialogue started.  You don’t need the filters of animal activist groups; go straight to the source.  Don’t have a farmer close to you?  Contact your state Farm Bureau.  They will be happy to put you in touch with a farmer that you have an interest in learning more about.

Anyone reading this letter is cordially invited to connect with me on twitter @cowartandmore.  I am happy to listen and answer questions.  If I can’t give you an answer, I will be happy to find you someone that can.


Kathy Swift, DVM

Note from MPK: Kathy Swift is a practicing large animal veterinarian who is also a mom and a gifted artist.  She blogs about two of her passions in life:  agriculture and art on her blog, I have great admiration for Kathy and would encourage you to connect with her. She’s a great example of agvocacy on and off the farm.