Making Sense of Welfare Labeling Options Back »

When choosing products that promote animal welfare, it is important for shoppers to understand what a label means.

Many food labels bombard shoppers with various animal welfare claims in addition to the many labels of non-GMO or pasture raised. It is important for shoppers to understand what a label means when choosing products that promote animal welfare or specific care practices. However, it can be just as confusing for producers to make sense of all these options when determining new marketing opportunities for their cattle. A few of the top-recognized labels are discussed here. A brief outline of the husbandry practices that may require specific compliance is highlighted.

Label Recommendations

  • WEANING: Recommended weaning methods focus on current industry practices that minimize the stress to the animals. Some suggested methods include: fenceline weaning, use of nose tabs, or mixing heifers/dry cows with the calves. It is preferred that calves suckle up to 6 months or at least not be weaned prior to 3 months of age. Still other welfare labels may prefer that weaning occur naturally by the mother and calf. It is typically recommended that calves are weaned and vaccinated at least 30-45 days prior to shipping. Freshly weaned calves should not be transported. Any deviations from the label standards, even due to uncontrollable measures (e.g. drought), must be documented and reviewed with the program staff.
  • LAMENESS/BODY CONDITION: Although extensively raised beef cattle may have few foot problems, a documented foot care plan is recommended for lameness. Lameness scoring is a useful tool to assess foot and leg problems and some welfare labels have specified minimums and maximums of acceptance for lameness scores during audits. Efforts should be made to remove causes of lameness from the animal’s environment. Body condition scoring (BCS) of animals is strongly recommended and part of the audit checklist. The labels follow industry best practices, but may state their own minimums and maximums for acceptable percentages for each BCS.
  • TRANSPORTATION: Most of the standards required for transport by the welfare labels are the same as current industry best management practices. Transport of downed animals is prohibited. Calves within seven days of weaning must not be transported more than three hours unless going into a breeding herd to improve herd genetics. Typically standards use the Federation of Animal Science Societies (FASS) transportation space guidelines for loading densities. Additional space must be provided during hot weather to avoid thermal stress, likewise during cold. Trailer ventilation must be set appropriately to maintain a fresh environment during transport. Records documenting the plan for transport must be maintained and an emergency plan documented. Cleanliness of the trailer and proper well-maintained loading facilities are also important. All animals must be healthy and fit for transport, unless being transported for veterinary treatment.
  • SALE OF ANIMALS/SLAUGHTER: The sale of animals through auction barns, stockyards, and video auctions may be limited by some of the labels. The preferred method is direct sale to farms that also comply with the label standards when raising the animal on the farm of birth is not possible. However, some exceptions do exist to sell animals through other outlets and require approval by the program. Some labels may even assist with finding suitable outlets for animals or to market meat products while a farm transitions into the program. Some label programs require slaughter facilities to be inspected by their own inspectors or utilize approved on-farm slaughter. Other labels require that slaughter facilities follow the American Meat Industry guidelines and be inspected by their own or a third-party inspector to verify compliance and traceability of the labeled products.

Common Labels

The majority of certified welfare labels are audited by the program or a third-party at least once annually. Additional reviews may be conducted to observe specific husbandry practices being performed or the care given to animals at various life stages. The complete animal care standards are easily accessible on each organization’s website.

These welfare food labels may be confusing and sometimes a bit misleading. However, if producers take the time to read through the cattle care standards they may find that there are additional opportunities to sell their animals in a growing, consumer-driven market without much change to the way they already operate.

Table 1. Comparison of beef cattle husbandry practices for various welfare label programs.

Husbandry Practice
Animal Welfare Approved
(Trust for Conservation Innovation)
Certified Humane
(Humane Farm Animal Care)
American Humane Certified
(American Humane Association)
Dehorning or disbudding Prohibited: disbudding before 2 months of age ok; tipping horns permitted if no live tissue cut Permitted: cautery past if less than 7 days of age, hot iron with pain control at 2 months of age, pain control required after 2 months of age Permitted: cautery paste if less than 7 days of age, hot iron with local anesthesia if less than 30 days of age, pain control required after 1 month of age
Confinement to feedlots Prohibited Permitted but not ideal Permitted
Use of antibiotics Permitted: only to treat sick animals Permitted: only to treat sick animals Permitted: only to treat sick animals
Access to the outdoors; access to pasture or range Mandatory Not required Not required
Natural daylight Mandatory Not required Not required
Electric prod use Prohibited Prohibited with exception: used as last resort if animal or human safety is jeopardized Permitted: only use on hindquarters of animals over 6 months that are capable of moving

Permitted: banding before 7 days of age; Burdizzo clamp or surgical castration by competent person before 2 months of age

NOTE: consent may be requested for immunocastration or chemical castration or to castrate after 2 months of age by an AWA approved method

Permitted: banding before 7 days of age, before 6 months of age may use Burdizzo clamp, bands, or surgical castration all with pain control, after 6 months of age only surgical castration by a veterinarian under anesthesia/sedation with pain and bleeding control Permitted: banding before 7 days of age, Burdizzo clamp or surgical castration by veterinarian under anesthesia, after 2 months of age only surgical castration by a veterinarian under anesthesia
Tail docking Prohibited Prohibited Not mentioned

This article was first published for Progressive Cattleman.

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