AR-News: (NJ - US) New state livestock regulations causing furor

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Mon Jul 14 11:18:20 EDT 2003


NEWS  
New state livestock regulations causing furor    

Monday, July 14, 2003 

By CANDY J. COOPER
STAFF WRITER 

  
  
JAMES W. ANNESS / THE RECORD 
Tom Brodhecker exercising some of his sheep on his farm in Newton, Sussex County. He helped draft state standards for care of livestock.
 
 
The barn door swings open, a pully squeaks, and a herd of excitable sheep bleat in a mad chorus. Farmer Tom Brodhecker scratches a ewe's neck and casts a critical look across his flock. He sees imperfection.

The muck and manure needs cleaning in his Sussex County feed lot, so it won't lodge between the cloven hooves of the sheep and cause foot rot. Spring rains have slowed that job. The rickety windows of the barn need opening, to air out the ammonia scent of sheep waste, which can make the sheep ill. On this day, someone just forgot.

And the sheep and lambs should roam freely in a lush field in the distant hills, not stand confined by electric fence, playing king of the mountain atop manure piles. Brodhecker says he has no choice. "If we put them out to pasture," he explains, "we'd lose them to bear."

Brodhecker knows from 34 years of experience that these are not the very best farming practices. Yet if a first-ever set of proposed state rules for the humane treatment of livestock were to be adopted today, his methods of raising sheep would be just fine.

And that, animal welfare advocates assert, stinks more than a pile of pig manure.

With the release in May of a 111-page document by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, "Humane Treatment of Domestic Livestock, Proposed New Rules," the state has unleashed a small storm, pitting animal-rights supporters and their notable spokespeople, including actress Mary Tyler Moore, against large New Jersey farmers and livestock-industry representatives from neighboring states.

The clatter is unusual for agricultural rules, which usually concern more quiet matters, such as dairy licensing fees or proper apple storage. The humane farming issue, in contrast, has turned New Jersey, the first state to consider such rules, into something of an animal-rights battleground, coming amid heightened concerns nationally about the treatment of farm animals.

A number of cities across the country, from Newark to Cocoa Beach, Fla., to Berkeley, Calif., have adopted official proclamations on the humane treatment of "sentient beings." And a handful of fast-food producers, including McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's, have begun financing research into what makes livestock happy.

In New Jersey, the issue erupted last month, when a hearing drew between 60 and 70 speakers and the state's Agriculture Department received 6,481 written comments. Public comment on the rules was accepted through July 4, and the final rules are to be released in the fall.

The proposed rules arose out of a 1996 state law that called for humane treatment of farm animals. It was spearheaded by the livestock industry, which felt it was being improperly criticized for using accepted farm practices, said Hope Gruzlovic, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture. Until now, the rules had never been drafted for lack of money or staff.

The standards cover the humane raising, keeping, care, treatment, marketing, and sale of farm animals, including horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, llamas, alpaca, poultry, and rabbits. They apply to some 2,700 livestock farm operations in the state, as well as to hobbyists or others who own one of these animals.

The regulations include standard measurements for animal weight, require protection from the elements, mandate that penned animals be able to sit, lie down, get up, and move their heads, and that they be on surfaces that do not cause injury.

Some 150,000 farm animals would be covered under the standards, as well as more than 2 million chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Enforcement would be carried out by state or county chapters of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which currently respond to complaints on livestock, or, under the new rules, by certified livestock inspectors from the Agriculture Department.

Animal supporters say the "humane" rules are anything but. In fact, they say, the rules would protect big farmers, not animals.

Lifted in part from industry guidelines, the rules would, for example, permit calves raised for veal to be kept crated, chained, and without bedding until slaughter.

Pregnant pigs could continue to live in "gestation crates," 2-foot-by-7-foot metal cages that don't allow the sows to turn around, a practice outlawed by voters in Florida last year and by several European countries.

Laying hens could live in "battery cages" - small wire-mesh pens where four or more chickens are confined.

And "forced molting," the practice of depriving hens of food for up to 14 days to induce a new cycle of egg-laying, could also continue under the rules.

"The word 'humane' is in there and these standards are not humane at all," said Barbara Dyer, program coordinator for the mid-Atlantic office of the Humane Society of the United States, in Mount Olive. "It looked like this was going to improve conditions for livestock, and it actually does the reverse. I think this is misleading the people of New Jersey."

Such farming practices cause physical and psychological distress in animals, Dyer and others say.

Keeping sows in crates, for example, can result in bar-biting, head-waving, and apparent depression, where the animals just sit, unresponsive to any stimuli, said Gene Bauston, president of Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal protection organization with about 100,000 members, some of them small farmers.

Forced molting of chickens causes deaths to some birds, Bauston added, and some farmers are looking for ways to stop the practice.

"These rules not only codify old practices, but they codify old, cruel practices that even industry people are moving away from," Bauston said.

But Karyn Malinowski, director of the Equine Science Center at Rutgers University's Cook College and one of the architects of the proposed new rules, said they were designed as a baseline.

"We were charged with coming up with humane standards - the minimum standards required before you'd say that the animal's well-being was in jeopardy," said Malinowski, a Ph.D. who specializes in the study of stress and well-being in horses. "We were not asked to come up with best management practices. If we did that, we'd have a document 5,000 pages long."

Malinowski said farmers already treat their animals well because they must. The more comfortable the animal, farmers say, the healthier it will be, the fewer drugs it will need, the more it will produce. Humaneness to animals literally pays, they say.

"Our farmers go way beyond these standards in their day-to-day care of these animals because their livelihood depends on it," Malinowski said.

Farmer Brodhecker, who helped draft the standards as a member of the agriculture board, admits to raising his stick-fetching Australian cattle dog, Harper, better than his livestock.

"You don't go out and raise a cow or calf the way you raise your pet dog," said Brodhecker, who with his wife, Jane, and son, Phil, presides over 172 acres of rolling landscape in Newton, where they raise cows, sheep, and pigs.

Brodhecker's is a family farm that employs some factory-farming practices, including a CAFO, or confined-animal feeding operation, usually associated with giant livestock operations. The CAFO keeps thousands of animals confined shoulder-to-shoulder - an abhorrent practice to most animal supporters.

But Brodhecker also notes that he raises his cattle in pastures, confining them in the feed lot for a few months before slaughter. He uses no hormones and no antibiotics, unless a cow falls ill.

He also has a 24-hour water system that provides cold, fresh water to all his livestock. And he uses a sophisticated corral system of swinging metal gates that makes it safer and less upsetting for animals when they are being handled.

Down the winding road, neighboring dairy farmer Mark Lockburner provides mattresses for each of his herd of 90 prized Holsteins, and a fresh-air system in the milking barn. The beds are made from chopped-up car tires, at $80 a stall. He says stress-free cows make business sense.

"It used to be if you did things halfway, you could make it," allowed Lockburner. "But things are so tough today, you've gotta be on your toes."

Brodhecker acknowledged that the minimum standards were drawn up in part to protect farmers from baseless complaints, of which there are a few each year.

"Before, any Tom, Dick, or Harry could call the SPCA and say a farmer was mistreating animals," he said. "You could be cited just because someone didn't like the look of your piles of manure or your animals in confinement."

Best management practices, meanwhile, should be used as guidelines, he said, especially in the event of lawsuits against farmers - not as enforceable rules. Such "best practices" have been outlined by a state committee and undergo frequent revision, he said.

The rules would have no apparent effect on Brodhecker's farm. Despite his sheeps' confinement, he's proud of their appearance - no wheezing, runny noses, gauntness, or disease.

"Look, this one's chewing her cud," he says, scratching the curly wool under the ewe's chin. "It's one of the signs that she's happy."

E-mail: cooper at northjersey.com
 



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