During a recent meeting, the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board agreed to set targets for its standards on veal calf housing.
In separate votes, the board approved two “key concepts”: Veal calves under 10 weeks of age should have the ability to turn around within their enclosure, and older calves should be raised in group pens.
Board member Leon Weaver, a dairy farmer and veterinarian, had urged the board to make a decision on these housing concepts so it would have a target for writing its standards. However, several board members agreed that these practices should only be implemented if it can be done in a way that protected both farmers and their animals.Weaver said it would be “unethical” and “unconscionable” if the rules end up placing hardships on Ohio veal farmers that force production to other states with weaker standards, thus providing no improvement in calf welfare.
“Whatever we do in Ohio, calves must benefit,” he said.
Some veal farms in Ohio have shifted toward group housing, but other farmers use tethers or raise their animals in individual stalls. The American Veal Association has already adopted a resolution to transition to group housing by 2017. That was also a recommendation offered to the livestock care board from farm organizations as part of an agreement that kept animal welfare decisions off of the 2010 the ballot.
The board reflected extensively on how to balance what would be acceptable to the public with what’s in the best interest of animals and the costs of production for farmers. It also wrestled with the possibility that consumers may lose confidence in veal production and the board’s ability to carry out its charge if the standards didn’t appear to go far enough.
“Either way, we’re putting a real hurt on the industry,” said Jerry Lahmers as he and other board members acknowledged the extremely delicate decisions the group must make.
By not embracing new housing practices, “the (veal) industry itself is driving itself out of business,” said Board Chairman and Director of Agriculture Robert Boggs.
On the other hand, some members argued that new standards could increase consumer demand for veal. But they also acknowledged the importance of considering science and economics as they make their decisions.
During a public comment period, two Ohio veal producers were split on the idea of moving to group housing. While one said he had seen a reduction in costs since adopting group pens, the other said the cost of converting barns would be prohibitive and only possible under a vertically integrated model.
The board appeared to be open to providing flexibility in the standards, such as by allowing tethering to prevent a behavior in which some calves suckle the navels of other animals, causing sores or abscesses. Other ideas included flexible transition timelines or developing a mechanism to monitor Ohio’s competitiveness with neighboring states to ensure the standards are having the intended effect.
The board agreed to spend more time contemplating the impacts of these decisions before proposing any rules.