Blog: Cows need their tails!

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In Vermont, where the dairy industry is sacrosanct, there is a bill in our state legislature to ban tail docking.  I was impressed when I saw that Dairy Herd Management editor Tom Quaife had written a piece back in 2002 called "Tail Docking Makes Little Sense," and opined that "tail docking is no longer a justifiable practice." I recently wrote to Tom to applaud this position and to rue the fact that tails are still being docked a decade later. I wrote to him again, to take issue with certain pieces that appeared in DHM. When I was disallowed from participating in a survey because I was not “in the industry,” I suggested that he occasionally airs points of view from “the other side of the fence.” I was pleasantly surprised when he generously offered me the opportunity to do that here in this blog.

I will do my best to represent the perspective of the concerned citizen/conscientious consumer in a manner that is civil and helpful.

By way of introduction, I am a longtime animal activist, although I’m no longer employed by, or affiliated with, any organization. I headed for the glorious Green Mountains of southwestern Vermont, where I’m a freelance writer/editor. I’ve been a vegan for most of my life; I’ve protested, gone to jail, advocated, campaigned, lobbied on behalf of the full gamut of animal issues. I saved two Vermont Randall steers, sire and son, from the slaughterhouse (close call!), and these two have given me the opportunity to observe them and members of their kind very closely. Rupert and Robin’s purpose is to keep the pastures down at the farm where they’re boarding, and to allow me the pleasure of being part of their bond. I tend to them every day whether they need tending or not, and they are my bovine inspiration.

Let’s get back to tail docking, a subject where many in the industry and those on the other side of the fence actually agree.

Even before Tom wrote his article, numerous scientific papers, expert opinions in journals, and industry-related position statements started to accumulate. Yet tail docking has become routine in this country, even as it has been banned in others. Even the conservative American Association of Bovine Practitioners opposes it.

The AVMA position paper addresses issues of acute pain, chronic pain, physiologic stress, disease and fly-avoidance behaviors (stomping, head-tossing). Fly-maddened cows waggling amputated stumps aren’t good for the burgeoning agri-tourism business; localvores are also paying attention to animal welfare. Some in the industry acknowledge the negative implications of ignoring public concern: "The insistence to continue a practice when it is neither supported scientifically nor condoned by the veterinary medical community casts doubt on the ethical bearings of an industry." (The Michigan Dairy Review).

This is big: Last year, Hoard's Dairyman concluded: "We all need to step back and take an outside look at our farms using the vantage point of the consumer who may be visiting for the first time. [...] When it comes to tail docking, it doesn't really benefit the cow, employee health, or product quality. Both Canadian and American veterinary associations agree and are on record as opposing the practice. We are, too. It's one practice whose only place should be in the annals of history." 

So there's been plenty of information, and plenty of time to agree to stop docking cows' tails, yet some farmers continue to modify the animal rather than modify their practices. That is why it’s time to resort to the tedious and contentious process of implementing an enforceable, legislated ban.

It’s not just animal advocates making a clamor. Just listen to who else is saying that cows need their tails!

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Evelyn K.    
Boston  |  June, 11, 2013 at 04:41 AM

Very well put. It's a pity that some dairy farmers need a law to force them to stop an outdated procedure that causes pain and harm to their animals while also being pointless. Perhaps those farmers who have taken the lead and voluntarily stopped tail docking could use it as a marketing tool. Put a sign out front "We do not cut off the tails of our cows," or "Our cows keep their tails," or "No tail docking done here." Then those farms without such a sign would be identified by eco-tourists and consumers for hanging on to an inhumane practice with disregard for the well-being of the cows in their care.

Linda Romanello    
Manchester NH  |  June, 11, 2013 at 06:55 AM

I absolutely agree that cutting off cows' tails in inhumane, unnecessary, and just plain cruel.

new york  |  June, 11, 2013 at 07:41 AM

The best way to keep a cow from kicking is to cut her tail off. Just below the ears!

Barre, VT  |  June, 11, 2013 at 08:07 AM

Upon returning to Vermont after almost 30 years, I was horrified to see cows in a pasture with their tails docked. What? I could not believe it. I am not a farmer, a veterinarian, or connected with the industry. However, common sense tells all of us that cows are born with a tail for a reason. The Legislature needs to get on the ball and ban the barbaric practice of tail docking. And members of the industry need to stop harming these animals.

Michigan  |  June, 11, 2013 at 09:51 AM

One of my jobs is to fetch cows to go to the robot. I can start out nice and clean but usually I am covered in manure head to toe by the time I am done thanks to certain cows that feel the necessity to drop their tails into the manure they diluted with urine. These specific cows make it a point to swing their tail and spray everyone within 10 feet with urine and manure before heading up to the robot to milk. I often wonder how much nicer it would be if they didn't have a switch to get everyone dirty with! On the opposite side we had a cow who was born on a sub zero night and her tail froze. She was even worse to work with because she could hit you with the nub and leave bruises. There are two sides to this story and what works for one producer will not work for another. There are many procedures to both humans and animals that one could argue their necessity.

Manchester, VT  |  June, 11, 2013 at 09:55 AM

I must admit, I am far from being a vegan or a vegetarian. I eat beef, chicken and seafood and I have known plenty of dairy farmers, including my grandparents, uncle, cousins and neighbors. That said, I believe that all farm animals, even those being raised to provide us with milk or even food, deserve to live healthy lives, be treated fairly and cared for. The research and findings clearly demonstrate that tail docking is just the opposite; it is simply a case of cruel treatment and animal abuse.

Marybeth Heartfield    
Dorset, VT  |  June, 11, 2013 at 11:16 AM

Thank goodness that the beloved cows of this State have someone like you Laura, on their side!! Keep up the good work!!

new york  |  June, 11, 2013 at 11:16 AM

lets add, declawing off cats, not mention the barbaric practice of riping the reproductive organs out of pets for the owners benefit. Not to mention debarking of dogs in large cities.

Pine, CO  |  June, 11, 2013 at 03:31 PM

Maureen Zorn, Dairy Management Associate at Cornell University Cooperative Extension, states "leaving tails intact does not make managing cows impossible, even in freestall herds, (although this may be a concern with alley scrapers). If you choose to leave tails intact, there are plenty of ways to maintain low SCC and keep cows clean, including: scraping the back of stall beds frequently, using plenty of bedding, or bed more often but use less each time, scrape alleys daily, minimize wet floors, flame or clip udders, and/or trim the switch on tails. Some of these techniques may seem time-consuming, but they will improve the cow’s living environment and help to keep them clean and comfortable." So, humane farmers will cease tail-docking and use other management techniques. No excuse to continue to cause pain, increased discomfort from flies, or other concerns with tail-docking.

Adele Douglass    
Herndon, Virginia  |  June, 11, 2013 at 03:33 PM

Brava, Lauren... our standards do not permit tail docking in dairy cows, and never have since we started the organization in 2003. You have been a fighter against this unnecessary and painful practice for a very long time and I applaud you for your tireless efforts. I hope everyone will spread the word about this.

Burlington VT  |  June, 13, 2013 at 07:59 AM

The dairy industry needs to realize that consumers today care about the welfare of the animals. Tail docking needs to go.

Karen Lee    
Arlington, VT  |  June, 13, 2013 at 03:26 PM

It is appalling to me that the practice of tail docking is allowed in Vermont (or anywhere else, for that matter). As a resident of a state that has a history of passing legislation supporting the promotion of sustainable farming methods and social justice, I am ashamed of our legislators for not acting before now to end this barbaric practice. The passage of a Tail Docking Ban bill is LONG overdue. Tail docking is a practice that is outdated, unnecessary, cruel, counter-intuitive to the production of healthy milk, and unconscionable.

Burlington, VT  |  June, 25, 2013 at 12:35 AM

In VT, we recently received a cruelty complaint from a tourist passing through who was quite upset to see a herd of cows with their tails docked, and reported this, believing it was criminal. I could only suggest to the Humane Agent that she explain that tail docking was a legal practice in VT. I don't know how that was received, or even if the conversation was held. But I do think it is worth noting. Modern agricultural practices, and consumer's perceptions of what they should be, or believe them to be, are quite divergent. Dismissing the consumer's idea of what farming is, and their perception of what it should be, dismisses the valuable insights of the customer that every business should be paying close attention to.

Vermont  |  July, 30, 2013 at 02:09 PM

Very well said, Abigail. How many of these "expert" opinions come from people who actually work with cows on a daily basis!

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