March 7, 2015
SOME 15 years ago, I had a freelance job visiting Victorian dairy farmers, usually couples, interviewing them and writing up their stories for a dairy newspaper.
Several of the women joked to me that they wouldn’t let their husbands milk the cows because they were too impatient and made the cows nervous. The husbands concerned usually looked a bit sheepish. I gathered “getting impatient with your cows” was a blokey habit, a rather endearing foible akin to supporting Collingwood.
Over time I learned that some people who work with animals hurt them because they can, the same way that some people working with children succumb to impulses they don’t understand.
Of course this is a minority of dairy farmers. Most are kind people who treat their animals well. Some told me, in an embarrassed sort of way, that they loved their cows. Some even had favourites.
And yet, caught between the banks and the milk processing companies, kind farmers are forced to regard their cows as milk machines. They think nothing of sending off their favourite cow after she’s miscarried, separating day-old calves from desperate mothers or chucking their five-day-old bobby calves onto a truck bound for the abattoirs.
I’ve been thinking about this in the wake of Meryl Tobin’s recent report in the Post of a meeting of residents, many of them farmers, with concerns about a Chinese company’s proposal for a dairy factory and feedlot dairy farm at Kernot.
While I share some of the concerns, a phrase uttered by someone at the meeting struck a jarring note for me: “Australia has best practice here.” How easily we persuade ourselves that what we do is the norm. That there is no other way. That “Aussie practices are best”.
On Thursday I attended a forum in the city called by Voiceless, an animal welfare organisation, on their report on Australia’s dairy industry. The Life of the Dairy Cow, a credible report overseen by a scientific panel, points out that both the dairy cow and the dairy farmer are being pushed to their limits, and beyond, by an industry based on ever-increasing production.
As Voiceless founder Ondine Sherman writes in her introduction to this report, “the dairy industry has done a superb job in creating and maintaining a fantasy”.
I once shared the common vision of cows grazing happily in green shaded paddocks (at least in Gippsland), providing milk for their calves and for humanity. No one gets hurt. After all, we’re not eating the animals. I now know that in many ways, the dairy industry is more brutal than the beef industry.
Let’s start with the calves. About 1.6 million dairy calves are born each year. Unfortunately, half of those are males that no one wants. About 800,000 bobby calves are killed each year within a few days of their birth, the “unviable” and low-value by-product of our “best practice” dairy farming regime.
Most are separated from their mother after a day (if you've heard the bellowing of the mothers at the separation you will never forget it) and trucked to abattoirs at a few days old. Farmers are also permitted to kill them on-farm with a blow to the head with a blunt instrument. Indeed, Victoria’s Department of Environment and Primary Industries provides a guide to killing them with the blunt instrument and what to do if, after the blow, “the calf is giving occasional gasps but is unconscious” (one option is to compress the chest wall with a fist).
The natural life span of a cow is around 20 years. In modern dairy herds, where cows have been non-genetically modified to produce 30-50 litres of milk a day, most don’t make eight years. A cow that doesn’t conceive, or drops production for whatever reason, often lameness or mastitis, is sold for slaughter.
During question time, I asked the panel if there were concerns about Chinese companies moving into Australia’s dairy production.
Dr Deidre Wicks, an honorary research associate at Newcastle University and a contributing author of the report, said the concern was not with “the Chinese” but with any move towards a more industrialised dairy industry. Currently about 2 per cent of Australian dairies operate as feedlots where cows have no access to pastures, but the proportion is expected to grow rapidly in line with the US and Canadian dairy industries.
The Voiceless panel included Vicki Jones, a West Gippsland dairy farmer. She and her husband farmed conventionally for many years until one day she told her husband how much she hated sending off the bobby calves to the abattoir. He confessed he hated sending off the old cows. So they decided not to do it any more. Now they practise a different kind of dairy farming based on much lower stocking rates and keeping the old cows as nursery mothers to raise the bobby calves.
Most farmers had had a gutsful of the industry, Ms Jones said. “They’re enslaved because they’re in debt. $1 a litre milk comes at a cost – to the animals, the farmers and the environment.”
Ms Jones told the forum that, left to their own devices, cows are the most social of animals. “There’s an intense bond between mother and calf. You can hear them talking to each other, even when she’s being milked. The cow calls out and he answers ‘Here I am, Mum’.”
But that’s just being sentimental, and we mustn’t be that. We might have to change our ways.
Catherine Watson is the author of Just a Bunch of Cow Cockies, a history of the Murray Goulburn Dairy Co-operative Company.
March 11, 2015
Thank you for such an informative and courageous article. Like many people I was fooled for years by pictures of seemingly happy cows on the side of my morning milk carton and even felt I was somehow being a good Australian by supporting the dairy industry. Then I discovered some of the facts you detail in your article and it became impossible for me to consume dairy products without the knowledge that I was complicit in the cruelty these animals suffer.
Now I am a vegan and it’s the best choice I’ve ever made.
Sue Saliba, Cowes, Phillip Island
March 11, 2015
It's getting more and more complicated to buy food but in a good way, I think. There are moral, environmental, health and financial considerations (I may have left one out) to be weighed up each time we shop. Thanks for the overdue heads up on dairy farming. We probably had an inkling but preferred not to look too closely. Armed with the information the next step is to try and support ethical, sustainable farming across all sectors.
Linda Gordon, Wonthaggi
March 10, 2015
Thank you Catherine for an enlightening article. We let farm animals down though we are their custodians. We betray our duty toward them.
People close to us mistreated cows. I complained to the people. They yelled at me. I alerted the RSPCA with no result. I wrote to the humane society and donated money with no result.
I do not eat meat, drink milk or eat cheese.
Next time someone hears about an association which protects farm animals having a meeting, please let me know. I would like to support such an association.
Felicia Di Stefano, Glen Forbes
March 9, 2015
Thank you Catherine for the story. It is shameful the way the dairy industry treats cows and their calves. While we have multi-national corporations that run most of the production here and globally, what safeguards do these animals have? Feed lots are unnatural. The cruelty that is shown by taking day-old calves from their mothers is beyond belief. Surely there is a better way.
It is impossible for me not to feel emotional about these issues. There is no place for cruelty to animals in our supposedly enlightened society.
March 8, 2015
Wow I never really thought enough about the life of a dairy cow. I love my dairy products but I want to receive them in as humane way as possible. Very thought provoking. We can only insist on more humane practices where we can as much as we can. Thanks, Catherine.
Tim Wilson, Wonthaggi