Fresno County dairy operator Jamie Bledsoe says he's proud of how he cares for his animals. But his word may no longer be enough to satisfy the buyers of his milk.
Bledsoe, like many livestock farmers, operates in a new environment where animal rights groups, consumers and retailers are increasingly demanding assurances that farmers treat their animals humanely.
"As much as we may dislike this, this is the world that we live in today," said Bledsoe, a Riverdale dairy operator. "And it isn't going to change."
The brighter spotlight has forced livestock operators across the country to adopt new procedures, reach out to the public and fight back with their own legislation.
Bledsoe heads a California dairy-industry task force that is working to create uniform animal-welfare standards for its members. A similar effort is being organized nationwide.
"We have to play some offense in California and across the country," said Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation in Wisconsin.
The animal rights groups have struck a chord with consumers, and with retailers, who may soon be asking milk producers about their animal welfare practices, Galen said.
Galen's group is focusing on the care of cows from birth to death, including how they are transported. Bledsoe is part of a group put together by the Western United Dairymen in Modesto.
"We are hearing it from Walmart on down, that this is an issue," Galen said. "And we want to be out front on this."
Richard Cotta, president of California Dairies Inc., one of the state's largest milk suppliers, agrees that some type of animal-welfare certification will soon be a reality for his cooperative's milk producers. And he supports it.
"I think people have some very legitimate concerns, and they want to make sure that farm animals are being taken care of," Cotta said. "It is a concern we have as well."
The treatment of farm animals has been an issue for decades, but concern has accelerated over the last several years as the Humane Society of the United States and writers such as Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," take aim at factory farms large-scale livestock producers.
The animal advocates say the large operations are hidden from public view and can perpetuate the abuse of animals. Scathing undercover videos posted on the Humane Society's Web site have shown hens living in filthy conditions and calves repeatedly being prodded.
"It has become very clear to us that Americans care about the treatment of farm animals," said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society's factory farming campaign. "And we are seeing a much greater awareness of this issue on a national scale."
For years, consumer have been unaware of the treatment of farm animals and how they are processed, Shapiro said.
"Regrettably, many people think of Old McDonald's farm when they think about agriculture," Shapiro said. "And that is done purposefully. The dairy industry has spent millions of dollars to promote happy cows in lush green pastures, but little could be further from the truth."
The Humane Society's message about farm-animal welfare has resonated with consumers. The group's California campaign to eliminate the confinement of hens resulted in a landslide victory. Proposition 2 passed last year with nearly 64% of the vote.
Since then, seven states have taken action against farm-animal confinement practices, the most recent being Michigan.
And last month, the California Legislature outlawed tail docking, a practice that involves amputating a portion of a cows tail.