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Scholar finds keys to advancing Australian dairy welfare


Wednesday 22 November 2023

“The problem the Australian dairy industry is facing, is that according to our trust tracker, one in four consumers do not believe that my community and I are doing a good job of caring for our cows. Social sustainability in agriculture requires honest conversations and introspection. It requires having the humility to listen, the curiosity to seek to understand, and the courage to want change.”

– 2021 Nuffield Scholar, Lucy Collins

Australia’s dairy industry could capitalise on market access advantages, benchmarking opportunities and genuine welfare advancement, if it adopted an animal welfare assessment program.

That’s according to a report released today by Nuffield Australia penned by 2021 Nuffield Scholar Lucy Collins. As part of her scholarship, Lucy travelled for 136 days, through nine countries, visiting more than 100 farms.

Lucy investigated global welfare practices and assurances schemes on a scholarship generously supported by the Gardiner Foundation. The foundation invests in research, development, and the people of the Victorian dairy industry.

After benchmarking Australia’s existing animal welfare regulations against other countries, Lucy found that while dairy farmers, by and large, do the “right” thing and have animal welfare front of mind, the regulatory framework lets the system down.

“Data shows 79% of Australians feel supportive of dairy farmers, but just over one quarter still believe Australian dairy farmers do not do a good job of caring for their animals,” Lucy says.

She recommends the industry commit to transparency measures to improve on these figures.

“Adequate financial resourcing, ongoing stakeholder collaboration and consultation, appropriate data utilisation and a commitment to continuous improvement will be key to realising the benefits of any assurance program.

“Any welfare assessment framework should aspire to remain open to incorporating new knowledge, scientific or regulatory advancements and emerging citizen concerns.

“Collaboration, transparency, and a shared vision for animal welfare are essential for improving trust in Australia's dairy industry.”

Lucy became acutely aware of this need during a visit to a poultry farm in the Netherlands.

“The people behind Kipster set out to design an egg ‘that even a vegan would eat’,” Lucy explains.

“Despite being neither organic nor free-range, Kipster received the highest attainable quality seal from the Dutch Society for Animal Protection. Its facilities are open to the public and offer interactive and educational community spaces.

“The visit to Kipster left my mind spinning with possibilities for improved public engagement with dairy farming in Australia and questioning whether our own industry’s positive story around circularity could be better amplified.”

Lucy’s Nuffield journey kicked off when one of her clients failed a processor’s animal welfare audit (which was based on an overseas program), despite Lucy considering the farmer to be a good operator.

Lucy, a dairy veterinarian and farmer herself, applied for the Nuffield scholarship to investigate further.

“After some research I was shocked to discover the number of assessment programs in existence around the world, and that we didn’t already have one here beyond the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines”.

Lucy wanted to understand whether these programs changed welfare outcomes for cows on participating farms, and successfully aligned with the priorities of both farmers and the public. She was also interested in whether the farmers required to take on the increased audit burden to achieve compliance perceived the programs as being fair.

Her goal was to understand the opportunities and challenges of welfare assurance, and to consider the feasibility of a farmer-led approach in Australia.

“It is time the Australian dairy industry got real about welfare assurance and had a whole-of-supply-chain conversation about our aspirations for the future.

“While there are some mandatory and some voluntary animal welfare industry policies already in place, the implementation of a dedicated program would provide a more systematic and structured approach to assessing and improving cow welfare and offer farmers the ability to benchmark.”

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