Whenever I buy a pork chop or steak at the grocery store, I ask myself a couple quick questions to help make my choice: Does this cut of meat look like it’s high quality? And is it at a fair price that fits my budget?

And perhaps like many of you, I also hope that the farm animals were healthy and well cared for.

I recently talked to Dr. Suzanne Millman, a veterinarian and professor of animal welfare at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

She has a unique position at the college, teaching vet students how to work in partnership with farmers to provide the best possible care for their farm animals.

I asked Dr. Millman why she chose a career focused on farm animal care. Her answer surprised me.

“I’ve always been drawn to the tough issues where my ethics pull me in two directions,” Millman said. “I love animals. I’m not sure if I feel comfortable eating them, but that’s part of our ecology. So really just being curious about those questions … and trying to figure out how the pieces fit together and how to be fair to everybody – to the earth, to the animals, to the people.”

I could relate to Millman’s answer. And Iowa farmers are listening to our concerns about farm animal care. Farmers take seriously their responsibility to provide targeted care for their animals.

Millman insisted that farmers choose to raise livestock because they love nature, they love working with animals and they love the farming lifestyle.

“It is a version of the human-animal bond, just a little different than a pet owner being attached to a single animal. It’s the pride that farmers have in the animals under their care, in the way a teacher would have with a classroom. You choose it because it’s your passion,” Millman said.

Farmers have always focused on animal well-being from a health, quality and food safety standpoint. But now, farmers are focusing more on animal behavior – for example, trying to give a cow what it needs “to be a cow,” Millman says.

“People are really engaged in this issue, and the farmers themselves have been putting money up for this (animal well-being) research. They are going after the real hard-hitting issues and not being shy about it. The farmers are really listening to their customers,” Millman says.

There isn’t one perfect way to raise livestock, Millman says. Yet farmers are continuously seeking new information from experts like Millman to provide farm animals with the best care possible. Indeed, farmers are out there – every single day – caring for their animals, Millman adds.

“Think about the worst day imaginable, and you have to go out and clear the snow in the driveway and go out inspecting your animals and getting the feed out there. And there are days when you’re just not feeling well, or you have a sore back and there you are working with animals. You can’t underestimate that daily commitment to caring about animals,” Millman says.

Admittedly, when I’m rushing through the grocery store with my squirmy toddler, I don’t always think about all the care that goes into raising farm animals.

But it’s also good to know, next time you’re at the grocery store, to look for the USDA inspection seal on the meat label. The USDA seal means that the farm animals were handled in a humane way.

Find answers to your farm animal care questions

Iowans with concerns about farm animal care are encouraged to contact Iowa Farm Animal Care (IFAC), a unique coalition that includes veterinarians, animal behavior scientists and farmers committed to addressing Iowans’ questions regarding farm animal care.

Dr. Millman, one of the animal behavior experts at IFAC, says if you are concerned about animal well-being on a livestock farm, you can call IFAC and the experts will follow up with the farmer to see if assistance is needed. Your calls will remain anonymous.

Through its On-Site Evaluation Team of experts, IFAC addresses concerns regarding farm animal care by tapping the combined strength and expertise of Iowa State University Colleges of Veterinary Medicine and Ag and Life Sciences, as well as the Iowa State Veterinarian’s Office at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Iowans with questions can visit the new mobile friendly website at www.iowafarmanimalcare.org or call 1-800-252-0577. This free resource is sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and Iowa Pork Producers Association.

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is Iowa Farm Bureau's Senior Features Writer.