US dairy farms

The 1,500 Jersey cows that Nathan Chittenden and his family raise in upstate New York seem to lead carefree lives. They spend their days lolling around inside well-ventilated barns and eating their fill from troughs. Three times a day, they file into the milking parlor, where computer-calibrated vacuums drain several gallons of warm milk from their udders, a process that lasts about as long as a recitation of “The Farmer in the Dell.”

Mr. Chittenden, 42, a third-generation dairy farmer whose family bottle-feeds each newborn calf, expresses affection for his animals. It’s a sentiment they appeared to return one recent afternoon as pregnant cows poked their heads through the enclosure to lick his hand.

“I’m in charge of this entire life from cradle to grave, and it’s important for me to know this animal went through its life without suffering,” he said, stroking the head of one especially insistent cow. “I’m a bad person if I let it suffer.”

Animal right activism

Animal rights activists have a markedly different take on farms like Mr. Chittenden’s that satiate the nation’s appetite for milk, cheese and yogurt. To them, dairy farmers are cogs in an inhumane industrial food production system that consigns these docile ruminants to a lifetime of misery. After years of successful campaigns that marshaled public opinion against other long-accepted farming practices, they have been taking sharp aim at the nation’s $620 billion dairy industry.

Some of their claims are beyond dispute: Dairy cows are repeatedly impregnated by artificial insemination and have their newborns taken away at birth. Female calves are confined to individual pens and have their horn buds destroyed when they are about eight weeks old. The males are not so lucky. Soon after birth, they are trucked off to veal farms or cattle ranches where they end up as hamburger meat.

The typical dairy cow in the United States will spend its entire life inside a concrete-floored enclosure, and although they can live 20 years, most are sent to slaughter after four or five years when their milk production wanes.

Happy Cows

“People have this image of Old MacDonald’s farm, with happy cows living on green pastures, but that’s just so far from reality,” said Erica Meier, the president of the activist organization Animal Outlook. “Some farms might be less cruel than others, but there is no such thing as cruelty-free milk.”

The effort to demonize dairy as fundamentally cruel has been fanned by undercover farm footage taken by groups like Animal Outlook that often are widely viewed on social media. In October, the organization released a short video filmed undercover on a small, family-owned farm in Southern California that revealed workers casually kicking and beating cows with metal rods, and a newborn male calf, its face covered with flies, left to die in the mud. One segment showed an earth-moving bucket hoisting an injured Holstein into the air by its hindquarters.

Stephen Larson, a lawyer for the Dick Van Dam Dairy, described the images as staged or are taken out of context. Earlier this month, a judge dismissed a law suit against the farm filed by another animal rights organization, saying it lacked standing. “The accusation that they mistreated their cows is something that cuts the Van Dam family very deeply, because the truth is that they have always, for generations, cared about and cared for all of their cows,” Mr. Larson said.

Abuses are not the norms

Dairy industry experts and farmers who have viewed the footage expressed revulsion and said the abuses depicted were not the norm. “These videos make every dairy farmer and veterinarian sick to their stomach because we know the vast majority of farmers would never do such things to their cows,” said Dr. Carie Telgen, president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners.

The effort to turn Americans against dairy is gaining traction at a time when many of the nation’s farms are struggling to turn a profit. Milk consumption has dropped by 40 percent since 1975, a trend that is accelerating as more people embrace oat and almond milk. Over the past decade, 20,000 dairy farms have gone out of business, representing a 30 percent decline, according to the Department of Agriculture. And the coronavirus pandemic has forced some producers to dump unsold milk down the drain as demand from school lunch programs and restaurants dried up.

During his Academy award speeches last February for best actor, Joaquin Phoenix drew rousing applause when he urged viewers to reject dairy products.

“We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and when she gives birth we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “And then we take her milk that’s intended for the calf and we put it in our coffee and cereal.

Animal welfare is the reality

The National Milk Producers Federation, which represents most of the country’s dairy 35,000 dairy farmers, has been trying to head off the souring public sentiment by promoting better animal welfare among its members. That means encouraging more frequent veterinarian farm visits, requiring low-wage workers to undergo regular training on humane cow handling, and the phasing out of tail docking — the once-ubiquitous practice of removing a cow’s tail.

“I don’t think you’ll find farmers out there who are not trying their best to enhance the care and welfare of their animals,” said Emily Yeiser Stepp, who runs the federation’s 12-year-old animal care initiative. “That said, we can’t be tone-deaf to consumers’ values. We have to do better, and give them a reason to stay in the dairy aisle.”

Source : The New York Times Dec 29,2020 written by Andrew Jacobs and also reprinted in The Financial express Jan 03,2021