They’re watching: Notoriety can happen to you

Even though an independent review cleared Willet Dairy’s animal care practices, producers can’t be complacent.

By Susan Harlow

Lyn Odell wants dairy producers to know that what happened to his dairy could happen to any dairy, large or small.

Odell is operations officer for Willet Dairy, a large dairy that milks cows and raises youngstock at four locations in Cayuga County, N.Y. The dairy employs 90 people.

Odell said it took just one “isolated instance of abuse,” caught on an undercover video, to catapult the dairy onto ABC Nightline last January. The video, shot by a Mercy for Animals member, showed a Willet employee mistreating animals. Odell knew nothing about the video or a complaint filed by the organization until ABC Nightline called him just before it aired. The employee was suspended.

Here’s the background: the Cayuga County (N.Y.) District Attorney had received a complaint from Mercy for Animals the previous summer but, based on consultation with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, did not pursue the complaint.

But once the video aired on national television, the district attorney asked the Finger Lakes Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) of Central New York, to investigate. That report, scheduled to be finished in February, is still to be released.

Within a week of the television show, Odell asked the New York State Cattle Health Assurance Program (NSYCHAP), a program of the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets, for an independent review of the dairy’s animal care practices. NYSCHAP’s team, which included staff from the Animal Health Diagnostic Center, PRO-DAIRY, Quality Milk Production Services and the agriculture department, visited the dairy and assessed its animals for locomotion, hygiene and body condition score. By the end of March, NYSCHAP had certified the dairy in cattle welfare.

Willet Dairy had already had some standard operating procedures (SOP) in place; NYSCHAP helped the dairy modify and add others.

“Once our review and modifications were completed, the SOPs were further reviewed by NYSCHAP staff and support vets,” Odell said.

When the SOPs were established, Odell set up a formal training process for the dairy’s employees.

SOPs are often unique to each farm – at Willet, for instance, calves are raised in hutches, so that determines the timing of weaning and dehorning.

One change that Willet made to its practices was to incorporate anesthesia into some procedures, such as dehorning and tail docking.

Odell said Willet’s NYSCHAP certification is a good opportunity to educate the farm community. All dairy producers, he said, should be aware that the same thing could happen to them.

Besides the public relations black eye for the dairy and the industry, Willet has suffered economically. Their milk buyer is not taking Willet Dairy milk until the legal issue is resolved.

“So the impact on the farm can be more than just getting on the national news,” Odell said. His advice:

• Examine your animal care practices closely. Look at them as an uninformed member of the public would.

• If you don’t have standard operating procedures  (SOPs) for animal care, you should. NYSCHAP can help with that.

• Even if your dairy’s animal care practices are impeccable, you may not be off the hook. “Our standard practices are beyond what is typical, but activists could still portray a farm that was inadequate in animal care,” Odell said.

• Don’t invite opponents to your dairy in hopes of convincing them otherwise. “They have preconceived notions of what they’ll see,” Odell said.

“There’s a real struggle – producers have to be aware we are at risk and need to make sure their shop is in order,” Odell said. And even when it is, they may not be perceived that way. p

Editor’s note: Another hidden camera video showing abuse of cows and calves surfaced at this month’s Eastern DairyBusiness press deadline. Billy Joe Gregg Jr., 25, an employee at Conklin Dairy Farms, in Plain City, Ohio was charged with 12 counts of cruelty to animals.


See more on NYSCHAP’s cattle welfare certification in “Herds step up to the plate” in PRO-DAIRY’s The Manager, page 24, in the May 2010 issue of Eastern DairyBusiness. Find the entire issue online at Or, visit

See NYSCHAP’s cattle welfare certification module at