by Emma Gregory
The second in a three-part series on the BC SPCA’s challenges protecting farm animals. To see Part 1, click here.
The BC SPCA is worried that it lacks the capacity to enforce animal welfare laws on farms, although that has not shaken its commitment to protecting livestock.
In a letter to the provincial government revealing the society’s numerous concerns with its mandate to enforce animal-welfare laws on B.C. farms, BC SPCA CEO Craig Daniell informed the province that he is concerned animal welfare laws are not being followed, and that animal rights activists are unfairly blaming the SPCA.
The first part in this series reported on concerns expressed in the letter, dated Nov. 5, 2020, that the non-profit society has no capacity to regulate the province’s more than 6,000 farms, “nor does it wish to be involved in such an endeavour…”
This second part looks at the SPCA’s efforts to guide animal-welfare developments in the farm industry, and how new rules affect farmers.
The BC SPCA’s strategy for improving the lives of farm animals is to work with the animal agriculture industry to improve its own welfare standards.
BC SPCA’s chief prevention and enforcement officer Marcie Moriarty said, “We have affected change, maybe change hasn’t happened as fast as people want, and I think we can agree with that.”
Welfare improvements within existing systems of food animal production have to balance two concerns – those of the industry and those of animal welfare experts.
The National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) was created in 2005 by industry associations to address timely issues with animal health, with the BC SPCA and other animal advocates participating in the first code development process, for dairy cows, in 2009.
Previously, farmers relied on traditional knowledge adapted to modern industrial practices to maintain their animals. Now, they are supposed to follow the NFACC codes of practice, and build the infrastructure required to support improvements to animal welfare.
In B.C., NFACC code requirements are law under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act. The BC SPCA has authority under this act and under B.C.’s Police Act to investigate animal abuse.
Under the PCA Act, a person responsible for an animal must not cause the animal to be in distress. While this can be interpreted in many ways – considering some necessary commercial farm procedures are distressing and painful for animals – NFACC codes define what is allowable, referred to as generally accepted practices of animal management (GAPAM).
Moriarty explains: “So in the past, an argument could be made that docking of dairy cows’ tails was a generally accepted practice because everybody did it. But in the code of practice for dairy cows, it has a requirement that dairy cow’s tails are not to be docked… So now the farmer can’t say well everybody does it, it’s been done for a hundred years.”
There are some procedures that, despite an adverse effect on farm animal’s welfare, are allowed because the industry cannot be profitable without them. Selectively breeding chickens to lay up to an egg a day (instead of 10-12 a year) taxes their immune system and puts them at greater risk for disease. As well, removing the newborn calves of dairy cows interferes with a cow’s natural behaviour, which is to nurse its young, and leads to cognitive impairments for calves; however, this is required for commercial milk production.
The ability for farm animals to express natural behaviours is important for farm animal welfare advocates.
A Vancouver Island farmer is happy to accommodate.
The Woike family farm
The Woike family has 58,700 hens to move out of battery cages.
Like other egg farmers across the country, the Woikes are responding to the 2017 code of practice, updated to require that chickens be housed to allow them to express some natural behaviours.
“I can tell you, it’s a transition that we’re happy to make,” said Jenny Woike, whose family supplies half of Vancouver Island’s egg demand.
So far, the Woikes have spent $3 million upgrading Uncle Ben’s Eggs in Cowichan and have moved 27,000 chickens. Plans to allow chickens outdoor access brings additional considerations, such as city bylaws.
Woike noted that animal welfare advancements will increase the price of eggs for consumers, and that the cost of transitioning too quickly would price her eggs out of competition.
NFACC codes require all chickens to be removed from battery cages by 2036.
Battery cages take up the least amount of space, so farmers will need to utilize more land and build bigger barns.
From an animal welfare standpoint, being removed from cages will increase the birds’ capacity to act naturally; however, there are drawbacks to free-run systems. In a commercial-size flock of tens of thousands, let loose in a free-run barn, chickens’ ability to socially organize breaks down into physical aggression, with some dying from secondary infections from fighting injuries.
According to Abbotsford poultry specialist, Dr. Gigi Lin, an enriched housing system is best because it caters to instinctual chicken behaviours, which alleviates stress. These systems include nesting boxes for privacy while egg laying; and perching sections to mimic branches.
Historically, farmers moved their chickens into cages because of disease risks. This allowed for greater stocking density and proved to be profitable.
Modern egg-laying chickens receive 15-25 vaccinations before reaching egg-laying maturity.
Concern for infectious diseases in farming increased after a 2005 outbreak of Avian influenza called H5N1 killed millions of chickens in Asia and made the species jump to humans.
This event – and other zoonotic outbreaks from the same period – caused governments around the world to pay more attention to diseases in animal agriculture, and farm animal welfare.
The need to keep pace with global expectations for animal health and disease surveillance led the industry itself to start NFACC, with funding from Agriculture and Agri-food Canada.
Part 3: How governments and industry reacted to zoonotic disease, who pays for animal welfare, and farm animal welfare around the world.
Emma Gregory is a graduate of the Langara Journalism Program, which partners with Black Press Media to create special project opportunities for new journalists.