McArthur videos shocking and confusing to dairy officials

OKEECHOBEE — Videos released Dec. 14 by the Animal Recovery Mission of alleged animal abuse at McArthur Dairy in Okeechobee shocked dairy industry leaders, as well as the viewing public. But there are some questions about what the videos actually show.

“I know you have been feeling sad and confused,” Southeast Milk Inc. CEO Jim Sleeper told dairy producers at a Dec. 15 seminar at the Okeechobee County Civic Center.

The ARM video claims that McArthur Dairy workers use electric cattle prods to speed the birthing process during labor.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” said Emily Meredith, chief of staff for the National Milk Producers Federation. Ms. Meredith was one of the speakers at the seminar.

She said a panel of experts are going through all of the ARM videos frame by frame. “It is hard to tell on the video what is actually transpiring,” she added.

“There is a lot in that video that is unacceptable,” she said. “But I don’t believe it represents the dairy industry as a whole and I don’t believe it represents the dairy industry in Okeechobee County.”

Another image that shocked many viewers was that of dairy workers using a low temperature flame from a propane torch to singe the hair off the udders of dairy cows.

Ms. Meredith said this is a standard acceptable practice and if done properly does not harm the cows.

“We don’t tell the farmers how to meet standard,” she said. The farmers decide which of the acceptable methods to use on their farms. “We make sure they are following the standard for the procedure,” she said. Industry-wide flame singeing seems to be on the decline, she said. Farmers are switching to other methods, such as shaving the udders or dipping them, she explained.

The video also reportedly shows dairy workers thrusting the torch toward the face of dairy cows to get them to move.

“That is completely unacceptable,” said Ms. Meredith. “A lot of things on the video are completely unacceptable.”

She said the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (F.A.R.M.) has placed McArthur Dairy on probation due to the breakdown in training and protocol.

“That needs to be taken seriously,” she said.

“I was appalled at what I saw in the videos,” Mr. Sleeper said. “We do not take lightly videos like that. At the same time, I was really confused.”

He said dairy owners have a huge investment in their cattle, and mistreatment of the cows reduces milk production. A stressed or injured cow will give less milk.

According to the University of Wisconsin website, “Short hair on a cow’s udder is easier to keep clean and dry than long hair. A clean, dry udder provides many benefits such as making it easier and quicker to prep cows, helps reduce somatic cell counts, reduces mastitis, and can help keep bacteria and coliform counts low. Udders with long hair make it harder to properly clean and dry the teats. Many dairy producers have discovered it’s faster and easier to singe off udder hairs than to try to clip and trim with clippers. Using a propane torch to singe off udder hair is quick for you and painless for the cow. When done right, you won’t burn the cows’ teats or udder.”

According to the website, some dairy experts believe flame singeing is less stressful for the cows than shaving, because singeing is faster.

In an episode of television’s “Dirty Jobs” on Season 4, Mike Rowe was filmed flame singeing a cow on an dairy in Illinois.

Dairy producers fill civic center for training seminar

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County Civic Center on U.S. 98 was packed Friday for dairy practices training by the Southeast MILK Inc. (SMI) cooperative.

Following the release of undercover videos made at three Okeechobee County dairies by the Animal Recovery Mission, Southeast MILK expedited training for the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (F.A.R.M.) 3.0 program for all of the co-operatives dairies.

Jim Sleeper, CEO of SMI, said as soon as the first video of Larson Dairy #5 was released online on Nov. 9, SMI sent field representatives directly to the farm. He said they also sent third-party inspectors to conduct an audit and recommend corrective actions.

The same thing happened following allegations of abuse of dairy cows at Burnham Dairy later and at McArthur Dairy.

He said the dairies were placed on probation until corrective actions were taken. Some corrective actions took days, others weeks, and some will take months, he explained.

He said he made a commitment to implement the new F.A.R.M. 3.0 programs and standards within the next six months. Already three additional auditors have been trained for F.A.R.M. 3.0. Previously, only one auditor had completed the new 3.0 program training.

Last week, Mr. Sleeper has participated in training seminars in Louisiana, Georgia and Florida.

Co-op members have been very receptive and eager to participate, he explained. The 3.0 training includes SMI experts in cow/calf operations, along with experts from universities and Merck Animal Health. For the Okeechobee program on Dec. 15, the speakers included dairy experts from the University of Florida.

He said dairy managers are trained on the most recent technology and have a chance to engage with the experts. He added they also learn from each other through discussion in small groups.

The ARM videos showed some dairy workers hitting and kicking cows. Mr. Sleeper said SMI has made a commitment to make sure all of the dairy producers use video cameras so they can view all parts of the dairies where workers interact with the cows.

He said nine member farms have already purchased new video systems.

Mr. Sleeper said SMI took a very active and pro-active stance.

“We need time for the sheriff to do due diligence,” he added, referring to the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office investigation of alleged animal abuse by dairy workers.

Mr. Sleeper said SMI will conduct many more seminars and will continue training. Annual training will be mandatory, he said, and additional training will be provided more frequently.

“Our members are tremendous stewards of the cows and the land,” he said.

The comprehensive F.A.R.M. 3.0 training programs are comprehensive, and “will allow us to initiate a lot of things we saw in the videos,” he said. For example, the dairies need to work on preparedness for hurricanes and have better options for moving calves before a hurricane hits.

“We also saw farm managers who knew the protocols, but all of the workers weren’t trained,” he said.

Mr. Sleeper said he feels personally responsible for what happens at the SMI member dairies. “I’m going to take ownership,” he said.

ARM is a Miami-based animal rights organization that promotes a strictly vegan diet.

In August and September, undercover ARM investigators applied for jobs as dairy workers. Videos taken by those agents have been released online starting Nov. 9 with the most recent McArthur video posted on the ARM website on Dec. 14.

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