Yes, dairy cows are well cared for

  • Article by: JOHN FETROW
  • Updated: October 25, 2012 - 6:57 PM

A recent letter to the editor milked misinformation for all it was worth.

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Dairy cows graze near St. Joseph in Stearns County, which has the highest number of dairy farms in the state. Minnesota is losing dairy farms faster than any other type of farm, largely because of low prices coupled with increasing costs.

Photo: Courtesy, University of Minnesota Extension Service

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Counterpoint

I want to set the record straight in response to a recent Letter of the Day about the care of dairy cows ("Do dairy farmers really care about their cows?" Oct. 21). The letter was filled with the kind of oft-repeated and ill-informed (or ill-intended) misrepresentation of dairy farming that adds to public distrust of a basic food. For instance:

"Cows in dairy production are forced to become pregnant nearly every year of their lives." Cows, like all mammals, begin to make milk when they give birth. Milk production rises after calving, then naturally declines unless the cow has another calf. Cows are bred to become pregnant to complete the cycle. They are not milked for the last two months of pregnancy until they calve again. The average cow calves about every 13 to 15 months.

"Once these mother cows give birth, their calves are taken away from them well before they would naturally wean. Dairy farmers, after all, don't want calves drinking the milk they plan to sell." Calves are separated at birth to prevent disease transmission from their mothers and, very importantly, so that they bond and get used to contact with people. People work in close association with 1,500-pound dairy cows daily, and it is important that the cows are gentle and accept people. If you are in doubt about this, try to milk a beef cow. Calves are fed either whole milk from the dairy or reconstituted milk powder.

"This separation, as you might expect, is difficult for mother cows, who grieve and mourn the loss of their calves." The separation is generally well-tolerated by both the cow and calf, and any distress is short-lived. Sending your child to school on the first day is much more dramatically stressful.

"The majority of male calves born on dairy farms are of no use to dairy farmers." Bull calves are sold by dairy farmers to other producers, who raise the calves, mostly for beef, some for veal.

"Because of this, they are very often sold into the veal industry, where they live in extreme confinement, deprived of their mother's milk, until they are slaughtered while they are still babies." A minority of bull calves become veal. Housing standards are not properly described as "extreme confinement." Yes, veal calves are fed milk from reconstituted milk powder (their mothers are on a different farm). Yes, veal is from a young animal.

"Cows can live as long as 25 years." Perhaps theoretically possible (like people can live to be 110), but, practically, a cow is not expected to live past 10 years, and certainly by then her productivity is well below a level that would justify keeping her as anything but a pet.

"In dairy production, however, they're typically killed when they are only five or six years old. Once they are no longer 'productive,' these cows are sent to slaughter, where most are made into ground beef." The average dairy cow lives to about six years old. She is then sold for beef. Meanwhile, her daughter(s) have grown to maturity and replace her on the dairy.

Since the number of dairy cows in the United States is fairly stable (we are not adding cows), the dairy producer has a decision to make when the daughter grows up and is ready to calve for the first time. The dairyman can either keep the daughter (better genetics and more productive) or keep the mother.

People have a right to say whatever they choose and even to submit their thoughts as letters to the editor. I also believe they have the responsibility to be well-informed and fact-based if they do so. It is nearly universally true that dairy producers do care about their animals. There are rare exceptions where cows are poorly cared for, some due to misinformation and even fewer due to actions by dysfunctional humans.

Thirty-five years of education and service in the dairy industry convinces me that the industry has made significant strides in the care, feeding and health of its animals in all stages of life. There is more to learn and to do and opportunities to do even better, but the public can be assured that the cows that produce the nation's milk are well cared for, no matter what we hear about egregious and publicized exceptions.

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John Fetrow is a professor of dairy medicine at the University of Minnesota.

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