Tail docking is industry’s 'Achilles heel' (pick your battles carefully)

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Dairy industry experts concede that consumers may have a point when they object to tail docking and certain other routine husbandry practices.

Janice Swanson, in a Michigan Dairy Review editorial, noted that published, peer-reviewed scientific articles written by respected scientists have reached similar conclusions. “The message here is that when science cannot support a practice it may be best to abandon it or look for alternatives. Pick your battles carefully. The insistence to continue a practice when it is ill-supported scientifically and by the veterinary medical community casts doubt on the ethical bearings of an industry.”

Swanson not only sees the importance of scientific data, but recognizes the ethical implications of ignoring them. Meanwhile, the New York Farm Bureau simply chooses to dismiss the scientific research as “inadequate,” (http://www.nyfb.org/img/topic_pdfs/file_0tzl2bdl5e.pdf -- the website disingenuously depicts a groomed cow with a fluffy, combed tail grazing in a pasture -- while the Vermont Agency of Agriculture does nothing but protect the status quo and the farmers’ prerogative to do whatever they want. Nope. Not gonna change here.

But there are signs of progress out there. This past spring, there was a report by Peggy Coffeen in the Wisconsin Agri-View titled, “Put cows at the center of animal welfare.” This is a dramatic about-face from the defensive stance that often typifies industry reaction to animal welfare concerns.

Coffeen describes the University of Wisconsin’s Amy Stanton, whose initiatives include research on understanding animals’ needs and addressing concerns related to dairy welfare issues. “There are a few Achilles’ heels weighing us down,” Stanton is quoted as saying. In addition to lameness and dehorning, topics such as calf mortality, downed animals, confinement and other surgical procedures like tail docking are on the list, she says.

In the same piece, veterinarian Jen Walker, director of dairy stewardship for Dean Foods, cautioned producers to be careful that their actions back up their words: “Without science-based objective outcomes and required action, the welfare of the animals will not improve.” A lack of action implies a disregard for both science and ethical considerations, even as “customers are demanding that the physical and emotional well-being of the cow comes first and foremost.”

Trust is certainly a casualty of inaction and failure to redress. ”When trust is lost, there are consequences," Walker warned.

Considering the dire state of dairy, along with consumer concerns, isn’t it high time to reconsider the cow?

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Dr Dan    
Ohio  |  July, 01, 2013 at 08:55 AM

Before the pot calls the kettle back , take a step back. I formerly worked in a factory. They put a mat in front of my machine yo make it more comfortable . This was before anyone associated back problems with standing on concrete. They did it for worker comfort. No increase in productivity was expected or realized. Is tail docking that much different? Tails are no longer used to keep flies away. We have better ways. The comfort of not having a tail hit you in the face is worth something. Another point is the very people that complain about maiming the cow in this way think nothing about putting rings all over their body.

Curt N.    
New York  |  July, 01, 2013 at 09:59 AM

This article is based on half-truths and opinions from supposed "dairy experts". Many of them have never worked on a farm, or with animals, and most definitely do not own a farm. If we did not have the dairy animals welfare in mind, we would not be in business. The cows are our business. It is offensive to think that those outside of our industry claim to know more than the boots on the ground. Tail docking improves the cleanliness of the animals and the worker. Also, as Dr. Dan mentioned, there are more effective ways for fly control.

Dave L.    
Kansas  |  July, 01, 2013 at 06:34 PM

I have had it with the apologetics crowd over this practice. Of course I would not sanction this practice if it meant hacking the tail off when the animal is 2 years old, but done as newborns by way of banding there does not appear to be any issue with animal well being. There are plenty of ways we can intelligently reason why this is an acceptable practice in our industry, whether one chooses to or not. This is an issue because people in our own profession insist on keeping it airborne. Shall we not tag them either? Remove extra teats? There is not one excuse that is made why this should be stopped that cannot be refuted, so I am tired of being called an animal hater for something I do that has benefits for both man and animal in a way that causes minimal discomfort for long term advantage, whether someone sees it on a financial statement or not, or whether someone driving past a cow thinks they can kill all surrounding flies or express themselves completely to their herdmates or not.

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