The agribusiness sector has been abuzz with complaints about ABC’s recent Nightline exposé of the biggest dairy factory farm in one of the largest dairy production states: New York. The segment features footage compiled by Mercy for Animals showing inhumane treatment of dairy cows, followed by ABC’s interview of the operation’s owner rationalizing that he doesn’t know if it hurts the animals, because as he put it, “I can’t speak for the cow.”
Reading industry responses to these kinds of investigations is always interesting to me. Whether it’s exposés of pig factory farms, egg factory farms, or now this dairy investigation, some ag producers seem to have a “circle the wagons” mentality that prompts them to attack anyone who’s critical of industry practices. In many cases, they resort to the industry mantra that farm animal suffering only occurs as isolated cases, not as part of standard industry practices.
For example, a recent blog on the American Farm Bureau’s web site attacking the Nightline story entitled, “Enough is enough! I don’t abuse my animals!” lamented, “The alleged abuse that was showed [sic] on a dairy farm on ABC last night is not typical of how animals are cared for today.”
But is that really the case? No one interviewed in the Nightline feature disputed that cutting off cows’ tails without painkiller is a relatively common industry practice. Unfortunately, it’s not only painful when done, but it renders the animals more vulnerable to biting fly attacks as it removes their best weapon against them. A Colorado State 2005-2006 national study found that 82.3 percent of 113 dairies surveyed were still docking tails, and some experts say the practice’s use is increasing.
Despite being so common, routine tail-docking is opposed by the American Veterinary Medical Association. There’s so little scientific evidence to support benefits of tail-docking that even the National Milk Producers Federation says the practice is “not recommended.” And even the editor of Dairy Herd Management has editorialized, “the dairy industry should eliminate the routine practice of docking tails.”
So why are so many producers still cutting off cows’ tails? Why are some of the largest dairy operators in the nation going on TV to defend the practice? And why are Big Ag bloggers complaining about animal welfare advocates’ concerns with tail docking?
To their credit, some of the more reasonable voices in the California dairy industry didn’t stand in the way of a recently enacted bill banning routine tail-docking of cattle. And the California Farm Bureau and California Cattlemen’s Association actually worked with animal welfare advocates and veterinarians in support of the measure. But the agribusiness lobby in other states is fighting hard to prevent even this modest reform from advancing.
Some industry spokespeople admit that they shouldn’t “defend the indefensible.” It would show real leadership on their part to not only admit that some standard practices, like routine tail-docking of dairy cows, are indeed indefensible, but also to join consumers and animal welfare advocates in passing laws to prohibit the worst abuses.