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New Investigation Exposes Dairy Industry

08 January 2013

A new investigation by Compassion in World Farming has revealed terrible conditions and widespread welfare problems on European dairy farms.

In August this year Ciwf investigators visited 52 farms in three countries: Germany, Europe’s largest milk producer, Denmark, where the dairy industry is intensifying and Spain, where cows have little access to pasture.

What they found on the randomly selected farms they visited will shock EU consumers. It provides a disturbing snapshot of dairy farming in Europe, which often has a wholesome, natural image, and demonstrates the need for specific rules to protect the EU’s dairy cows.

Some of the most common problems Ciwf investigators observed were cows:
  • being pushed to their physical limits to produce high milk yields
  • chained indoors by the neck, in some cases all year round
  • with severe lameness
  • forced to live in filthy conditions
  • in barren and uncomfortable housing with unsuitable bedding
  • with painful sores.
Contented cows enjoying hay indoors

An alarming number of farms visited also kept cows indoors all year, with 68 per cent of farms in Denmark, 63 per cent in Spain and more than 50 per cent in Germany depriving them of the chance to graze in fields in the summer. This is a long way from the idyllic view that many EU consumers have of dairy farming, in which cows spend the summer in the lush fields grazing.

Tethering, where cows are tied up with leather straps or chains, sometimes for their entire lives, was a particular problem in Germany, with 79 per cent of the farms visited using it in some form. In Germany, some cows are tethered 24 hours a day all year round. Others are tethered from October to March. Cows that are tethered cannot walk or move around – they may even have difficulty lying down and getting up.

Ciwf investigators found a farmer who kept his cows tethered even while they were giving birth. This is likely to be deeply distressing for the cow, whose overwhelming natural instinct is to protect and nurture her calf during and immediately after birth.

Peter Stevenson, Compassion in World Farming’s Chief Policy Advisor, said:

“Europe’s dairy sector enjoys a wholesome image. Consumers picture cows grazing contently in green fields. In reality however, many of Europe’s dairy cows are kept indoors throughout the year, never enjoying fresh air or the warmth of the sun on their backs. Ciwf have said this investigation shows that cows are often housed in barren, overcrowded, sometimes filthy conditions. Many are lame and suffer severe pain.

“The EU dairy sector must introduce far-reaching improvements in the way dairy cows are kept or it will rapidly lose its good reputation - milk will come to be seen as the product of a harsh factory farming system.

“The European Commission has so far set its face against legislation to protect the well-being of dairy cows. The Ciwf have called on the Commission to re-think its position and to introduce a Directive that requires cows to have access to pasture during the grass-growing season and bans the tethering of cows.”

In Germany, investigators visited 14 farms with 15 to 1,400 cows. Yields, the amount of milk a cow produces in a day, were around 20 to 30 litres. A cow would only have to produce 4-8 litres per day for her calf. On one farm, cows were pushed to produce up to 60 litres a day. The massive physical strain this puts on the animals means they are exhausted and generally culled after just three milk cycles (cows can live up to 20 years, or even more).

These high yields, typical of the US-style mega dairy and increasingly common in the EU, are part of a system that treats sentient beings as milk machines. Cows are ruminants, so access to pasture provides their natural food. But in American-style, high-yield systems, grazing plays a very limited part in their diet. Often the cows are ‘zero-grazed’ which means they are kept indoors all year round or are allowed out only in the short period between the end of their milk cycle and the start of their next milk cycle.

In Denmark, desperately thin, emaciated cows were a common sight. Many of the cows on the farms Ciwf investigators visited will live their entire lives without more than a fleeting idea of the freedom of grazing in a field and the opportunities to express their natural behaviours that this brings.

On more than one farm in Spain, investigators saw cows with their tails docked. Cows without tails cannot keep biting flies off. The bites can cause pain and irritation and in summer months when there are large numbers of flies, cows with docked tails may become distressed and behaviour like feeding and grazing may be disrupted. In addition, it is illegal. Skinny, emaciated cows were common and at least 38 per cent of farms did not appear to provide these hard-working animals with suitable, clean bedding.

The case for new legislation

While not a scientifically representative sample, the recurring issues on these farms firmly support Compassion’s call for specific European legislation to protect the EU’s 23 million dairy cows.

Minimum standards across the EU would create a level playing field for farmers. Pigs, chickens and calves are protected by detailed species-specific EU laws, but there is no such legislation for dairy cows.

Compassion is calling for the European Commission to propose legislation that guarantees minimum welfare standards for dairy cows. This should include:

  • access to pasture in the grass-growing season and access to the outdoors where pasture is not available
  • minimum space allowance for cows when they are indoors
  • A ban on tethering, except for very short periods, like during veterinary procedures
  • Improvement programmes for lameness, mastitis and other widespread welfare issues.

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