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The Real Story on Dairy Cows - Or Why You Should Check Your Facts Before You Start a Petition

So months ago, I signed some sort of worthy petition that I don’t even remember the content of, and am now ‘on the mailing list’. This means I regularly get notices of new petitions from Change.org. Usually they are worthy causes, though I have not signed one since the initial one that got me on the list. This morning, they sent me the wrong one. Or maybe the right one, depending on how you look at it.

Subject Line: Animal abuse at dairy farms

It was started by I’m sure, a well meaning girl who really thinks she knows how dairy farming works and wants to speak out against the horrible treatment that is apparently taking place on Factory Farms. Like many animal activist initiatives, this petition contains a wide variety of miss-information. Thanks to the wonderful ability of social media, and the fact that Change.org just mailed off this petition as their ‘please help’ for this morning, it’s getting a lot of attention.

I would like to take a moment to use my rights of free speech and break down some of the arguments presented here.   If you’d like to see the actual petition, you can go here: https://www.change.org/p/the-honourable-lawrence-macaulay-island-farms-stop-abuse-on-dairy-farms?utm_source=action_alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=454370&alert_id=zBkAFsTYEl_O4uvF6ZJx5JkVPMkPmvFR%2B%2F33pcM0wK%2FnACGXnB5xOI%3D

The article begins by citing how TV ads for dairy show happily grazing cows in an attempt to falsely advertise how dairy farms operate. Note this first photo of the actual cows who live on our actual farm. Grazing is not as common as it once was, but it still happens. Myth one debunked. If you're wondering why they all have their heads up and aren't grazing in the pic, it's because they saw me and are all coming over to say hello because they think I have something for them.

The next paragraph of the article explains how cows are brutally raped in order to make them pregnant so they produce milk. It’s true that we don’t ask a cow for written consent before artificially inseminating her, but they are only inseminated during the time in their cycle when they would’ve accepted a bull, had he been around. Artificial insemination is done by someone who has the training and knowledge to understand the anatomy of the cow, and perform the task without hurting her in any way. Believe it or not, it is entirely possible to transfer disease from one animal to another during breeding. If you were a cow, would you want one or two bulls breeding the whole herd? Or would you prefer a clean, one-time-use glove, and sanitized equipment? Not to mention someone specially selected your baby daddy from hundreds of bulls in the world so you can have the most elite, superstar baby your own genetics can help produce. Who would argue with that?

Next the article says cows start producing milk as soon as they are pregnant. A basic understanding of reproduction and lactation would prevent this person from making this statement. Okay, ladies who have been pregnant before: When did you start lactating? I don’t think it was five minutes after the stick said ‘pregnant’. Cows are pregnant for 9 months. They don't begin to produce milk until just before they calve. They then milk for about 10 months, then get a break for a few months while they wait for the next calf to come. Yes, they are re-bred while they are milking, but only after they have had time to recover from the first birth. Many farmers have a vet coming in on a bi-weekly or monthly basis to do 'herd health' exams. Cows won't be re-bred until they have been cleared by the vet.

Despite the fact that the petition writer doesn’t understand when the cow begins to produce, she does understand how we get it out of the cow. Though, apparently, the milking machines are hooked up to the cows and painfully pump milk every day. This makes it sound like once a cow hits the milking line, she’s wearing that thing forever. I did a little research. Women breast pump their own milk so they can still feed their babies even after going to work, or in situations where they just don’t want to feed their baby themselves. According to BabyCenter, it takes 10-15 minutes to pump with a good electric pump, or 45 with a hand pump. Fifteen minutes! It takes about 5 to fully milk a cow. Even on farms that milk three times a day, it’s still only taking as long as it takes a woman to pump once.

Milking machines are constantly being updated and improved, and are lined with soft rubber liners that are replaced on a very regular basis to keep them from drying or cracking, which would cause them to possibly harbour harmful bacteria, or cause injury to the cow. There are industry standards governing the replacement of these liners for the health and welfare of the cow, and the quality and safety of the milk.

As far as the machines feeling painful, it’s true that a first calf heifer who has never milked before will find them odd, and likely will object a lot to the first time they are milked. This is not because it hurts, it’s because it’s strange and she doesn’t know what it is. It’s just like the first time you take your puppy to the groomers. A good groomer will take lots of extra time with your puppy to make sure it feels comfortable and will be confident for its next visit. It’s no different with a heifer. If possible, many farms have two people present when milking a heifer the first few times. One can manage putting the milker on her, while the other strokes and reassures her to let her know everything is okay.

I still haven’t answered the painful question. I personally have stuck my fingers down inside the units prior to putting them on cows, just to see what it was like. Yes, they squeeze a little, but it’s not painful in any way. Obviously this doesn’t tell us whether it’s painful to the cow or not, but think of it this way. If you were a 1500lb Holstein cow, with a strong head that can act like a bulldozer, and strong feet and legs that can damage almost anything when you kick, are you going to allow a 160lb human to stick a painful device on a sensitive area? You figure it out.

The article cites farmers chaining their cows down to keep them still while they are being milked. Again, 1200-1500lb cows, 160lb human. Yes, there are a couple of devices that can be used when training heifers that they should be relaxed about milking. One device is called a Kow Kant Kick. You can see a picture of it here on Jeffer's Pet. It is made of rounded pipe metal to avoid poking the cow. It sits on her back just ahead of her hips, and is wound snug with the ends sitting just against her stifle joints. It is supposed to prevent a cow from bringing her leg forward and kicking the milker off. If the cow is agreeable and just needs something to make her pause and think ‘no, the milker is actually okay’, this will work. If a cow decides she’s not wearing this, I guarantee it will come off, and you’d better duck when this chunk of metal goes whizzing by your head at high speed.

It’s true that some cows do live in tie-stalls, and spend most of their lives tied up, which could be what the author is referencing. That being said, you should see a modern tie-stall before you pass judgement. Modern tie-stalls have standards regarding how big the stalls have to be. The cows have unlimited access to water in clean, automatic bowls, they sleep on rubber mattresses and can stand up or lie down whenever they want. They have feed hand delivered to them multiple times a day, either by human or robot, and their lives are completely tailored to what’s best for them. Unlike a free-stall environment where the cows are able to walk freely, but have to be managed in groups, tie-stall cows are managed on a completely individual basis. Because they stand and eat in the same spot, they can be fed a diet that is specially formulated for their own unique needs. This is comparable to you being able to spend your life lounging on the couch while you every need was delivered to you on demand. Being waited on probably sounds good, but you probably think you'd get bored and think the cows will also be bored. Newsflash. Cows don't really get bored. If you've ever seen a cow lying down in a field and wondered what she's thinking, wonder no more. Studies have been done on the brain activity of cows, and when they are comfortable, they are literally thinking about nothing. So a well fed, comfortable cow in a tie stall isn't worried about her next ski trip, her mind is blank.

A cow does gets social interaction from the cows who are around her. It’s not uncommon to see one cow licking the friend beside it. It’s also not uncommon for a cow to show signs of sadness or even depression when a friend dies, or is moved away. They will overcome this in a short time, but it does set the cow back for a bit, so many farmers train their cows to always go back to the same spot in the barn. The cows pick this up quickly, because they like routine, and order.

The article goes on to say a cow never sees the light of day. Wrong again. Modern barns have lighting to rival most industrial warehouses (and I know, I’ve been in both). With lights on timers, climate controlled ventilation curtains, and fans, cows are rarely in the dark, and are always breathing fresh, clean air from the outside.

The petition is now over 7700 signatures. That’s a few too many uninformed people who are following along with the social media storm. I have only discussed the myths regarding cows. Come back in a bit while I debunk the miss-information about calves. Go to part 2 here.

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