The cows on Ray Prock Jr.'s Denair-based dairy may not get any happier, but maybe in a year, more people will know the true state of their care.
Prock and many other dairy farmers like him have joined a statewide program to promote good animal care practices as well as evaluate dairy farms and verify that they are performing up to state and national standards.
The program known as FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) has a five-point strategy that plans to:
adopt National Dairy Farm standards;
hold workshops and provide educational materials to orient dairy farmers to the standards;
hold on-farm evaluations of each dairy and provide each with a benchmark to measure improvement;
support and assist animal care improvements;
and provide third-party independent verification of farm practices.
Michael Boccadoro, executive director of Dairy Cares, a statewide coalition supporting animal care and economic and environmental sustainability in the dairy industry, said about 80 percent of the state's dairy farmers have signed on to take part in the program.
Merced County alone has about 300 dairies and in 2008, milk comprised about one-third of the total ag commodities value.
Evaluations for dairies taking part in the program will occur later this year. Third-party verifications, however, will not be done on every farm. They will occur in 2011 on randomly chosen farms that are considered representative of separate dairy groups, Boccadoro said.
There are dual purposes for the program: first, to educate and bring any dairy farmers that may be lagging behind in animal care up to standard; and second, to put in place a way of verifying to the public that someone is double-checking that the dairies are doing what they say they are.
"It's actually a way, a mechanism we can use to let the people buying our products know that we are caring for our animals," Prock the dairyman said. "It's a way to highlight what we are already doing and at the same time add a continuing education component to it."
Kevin Abernathy, executive director of the California Dairy Campaign, says dairy farmers would not be in business today with the level of efficiency they have if they hadn't been taking care of their animals and their land.
Kristina Addington, a Kentucky-based spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, disagrees, calling the dairy industry rife with animal abuses.
"I think it's an initiative to create a false appearance that they care about the welfare of cows and that's a priority when clearly it's just a smokescreen for cruelty, Addington said.
PETA is a vegan organization that would prefer people not eat animals or animal products.
"As far as a smokescreen, that just really gets my dander up," Abernathy said. "That's the other reason for the FARM program -- to show the majority of the consumers not the lunatic fringe who want us to eliminate animal agriculture and have us eat the bark off trees.
"Last time I checked most human beings were carnivores."
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals took a slightly different course than PETA.
"We are very encouraged by this effort to ensure the humane treatment of dairy cows in California," said Bob Baker, a farm animal specialist for the ASPCA. "There is certainly a vital need for such a program, and we believe a third party verification plan will give this effort credibility which several other similar programs have lacked."
Reporter Amy Starnes can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.