Breaking down silos and 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 in Olds, Alberta, March 22-23 for the Livestock Care Conference, hosted by Alberta Farm Animal Care (AFAC).
"There are a number of reasons to support farm animal care," says Oneil Carlier, Minister of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, who kicked-off the proceedings attended by 160. "Top of the list is that it's the right thing to do. The work that AFAC and the livestock industry in Alberta does to promote animal welfare and collaborative approaches plays a vital role."
AFAC provides a coordinated approach for all areas of livestock production to work together to advance and promote responsible livestock care, says Dr. Angela Greter, AFAC Executive Director. "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. At the same time, we have taken important steps forward with an updated organizational structure and renewed approaches for the future. Part of our 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."
Thinking in broader terms about the positive environment required for a high level of farm animal care is essential, says international speaker and thought leader Brenda Schoepp, who highlighted the key inter-relationship 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."
This supports competent decision makers who are trustworthy and exemplify high levels of morality, who are able to reliably and consistently deliver responsible animal care, says Schoepp. "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." Morality is the "cultural DNA" that links across animals, farm workers and the general public.
The dynamics between politics, policy, profit and people can both help and hinder farm animal care progress, says Dr. Jennifer Walker of Dean Foods. Navigating those dynamics to support mutual understanding and advancement through common interests is a key challenge for the livestock industry, but one that can and must be met. "Animal welfare is foundational to sustainability. It’s the core of everything we do in the livestock industry. It’s absolutely wonderful to be here today and see everyone here so passionate about making this progress. 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, says Dr. Alexandra Harlander of the University of Guelph, who provided 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. The keys are to keep animal welfare at the center of our decision-making." Marion Popkin of Alberta Rabbit Producers Association reinforced this point while providing insights on the unique challenges for niche meat industries.
A number of big picture viewpoints were offered during a lively "Bear Pit" session featuring a diverse panel. Along with Dr. Angela Greter, the panel included Darren Vanstone of World Animal Protection, Jackie Wepruk of National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC), Brandy Street of the BC SPCA and Michelle Follensbee of the Animal Welfare Branch of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. "Everybody has an opinion on what animal welfare should look like,” says Street. “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."
These common values resonate from the farms of Alberta all the way around the world, says fourth-generation young farmer Leona Dargis, who provided global insights based on her broad experience internationally as an inspirational speaker. "Change is constant and change is necessary. Whether on the farm or internationally, communication is so important to make those positive changes. We need to keep having the conversations and telling our stories. Let’s not be afraid to be transparent and be accountable for what we do. We are only going to keep learning and keep getting better."