Factory Farm Article Overstates Cow Tail Docking


In “9 Facts About Factory Farming That Will Break Your Heart,” The Huffington Post yesterday announced a shocking “fact” that over 82% of U.S. dairies use tail docking. Instant reaction: horror. Wouldn’t cutting off tails not only hurt the cattle, but also embolden disease-carrying flies around them? (It does.) However, the US Department of Agriculture indicates that we’re talking more like 50%, and that the tail docking practice is declining.

Docked cow tail.The most common method farms use to clip off a cow’s tail in this corporate age is by applying elastrator bands. Basically, cow people rubber-band each tail to cut off the blood supply to one to two thirds of it. The dead part falls off in a month or two. Other ways of docking include cauterizing irons, emasculators, and surgical excision.

New Zealand dairy farmers developed the tail docking process during the early 1900s to reduce the incidence of leptospirosis, a disease that affects 7-10 million people worldwide each year. The infection can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death. Although dairy technology has changed a lot, milking personnel then had good reason to fear a swat in the face with a tail slimy with feces and urine, which carries the disease.

Docking was also said to provide cleaner udders, reduce mastitis, and improve milk quality and hygiene. Ranchers started cropping tails on beef cattle as well “to reduce injury associated with tails being stepped on by other cattle and/or caught in between the slats of slatted floors, and to prevent subsequent tail infection, ascending myelitis, septicemia, and lameness resulting from these injuries.”

Huff Post’s 82% number came from a survey of 113 north central and northeastern U.S. dairies during 2005-6 that was published in the Journal of Dairy Science two years later. In 2010, however, the US Department of Agriculture published a study done by the National Animal Health Monitoring System that looked at dairy management operations in 17 major dairy states across the nation. Just over half of the operations investigated (51.4%) had no cows with docked tails. All cows had their tails docked at only about one of every seven farms (14.6%). Abbie Fentress Swanson of Harvest Public Media passed this information along in her summary article of September 2012.

The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners both came to oppose tail docking after giving it decades of support. Denmark, Germany, Scotland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and some states prohibit it. On humanitarian grounds, docking is a real disaster. Its real death knell came two years ago, when the National Milk Producers Federation voted to take a stand against the practice. The industry trade group now finds no good science behind docking.

Trimming a cow's tail switch

“NMPF’s National Dairy FARM Animal Care Program opposes the routine tail docking of dairy animals, except in the case of traumatic injury to an animal. This practice is recommended to be phased out by 2022. Switch trimming is recommended as a preferred alternative.”

Kind of a no-brainer. You just cut the hair off the end and leave the rest of the tail. A lot like what happens every day at the nation’s finest hair salons.

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