Last week, a heat wave, in tandem with a lack of adequate housing and other safeguards for the animals, resulted in thousands of dairy cows perishing in the punishing heat of California’s Central Valley. It’s one of the worst weather-related incidents to strike dairy herds in recent memory, and rendering plants in California are so overwhelmed with rotting carcasses that county officials are suspending rules against burying the animals whole in mass graves.
The Central Valley is a jarringly hot place in the summer, and global warming may be exacerbating that circumstance. That’s precisely why dairy farmers must be alert and prepared for episodes of intense heat. Having functional and well-placed cooling systems and structures like water misters and adequate shade could go a long way toward preventing the loss of animals.
But there are more problems for dairy cows than overheating and unending exposure to the sun. It’s routine in the conventional dairy industry to keep the animals in a nearly unending state of pregnancy (via artificial insemination) in order to keep the milk flowing. Because they’ve decided that this milk is headed for retail markets and not for the mouths of calves, the farmers take away calves from their mothers soon after birth. These babies and the mothers know what’s going on, and they are distressed by it. It’s truly heartrending to see new mothers bellowing for their calves after watching their newborns carted off.
That’s exactly what an HSUS undercover investigator recently documented at a dairy farm in New York. As you can see in this short HSUS video, anyone who tells you that cows don’t suffer emotionally when their babies are taken away from them is engaging in excuse-making or denial. Maternal deprivation has become one of the hidden ingredients in every glass of cow’s milk and an important question for every consumer to consider.
Cow’s milk, like the milk of any species, is designed for infants, not adults, but if adults have a hankering for milk, they now have an abundance of plant-based options in grocery stores, coffee houses, and other food retail locations. Almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, rice milk, and other kinds of non-dairy milk represent a full 10 percent of all fluid milk sales in the United States. And where once those seeking dairy-free ice creams were relegated to natural foods stores, now brands like Ben and Jerry’s, Breyers, and Häagen Dazs all offer their own lines of several flavors of vegan ice cream that are sold in regular groceries.
While a decline in dairy consumption might reduce the number of farmers involved in that enterprise, there would likely be a corresponding growth in other sectors of the horticultural economy. In California – the nation’s almond-growing hub – there would be plenty of opportunities to expand almond sales by turning the nuts into milk. This is the sort of dynamism that exists in an adaptive, innovative marketplace, where farmers and other entrepreneurs are offering up more options and consumers are making more informed choices and calibrating the true costs of their choices.
The dairy industry shows more than a few signs that it’s feeling threatened by these other agricultural producers and their innovations in product development and marketing. Big dairy apparently thinks it is not enough for it to use tens of millions in check-off dollars to market its product. It is yet again turning to Congress to impose anti-competitive practices. It doesn’t want other producers to be allowed to use the word “milk,” as if someone buying almond milk might actually be confused as to whether their beverage was bovine-based or not.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc. – hailing from the second-largest dairy-producing state – is regrettably carrying a bill aimed at making it illegal to use the word “milk” to market plant-based milks. The bill so far has seen no action on Capitol Hill, but we have no doubt that she’ll try to attach it to the upcoming Farm Bill. That would be an attack on other farmers, and it would not do a thing to help consumers.
The dairy industry should take a much more comprehensive look at animal welfare issues and get its own barn in order instead of trying to hurt other farmers. It was the dairy industry’s own inattention to good animal husbandry that annually produced tens of thousands of downer cows – animals too sick or injured or battered to walk, and dragged into slaughterhouses to make ground beef. The HSUS has fought the mishandling and mistreatment of downer cows for years, and our landmark Hallmark-Westland investigation in Chino, California, was instrumental in securing the enactment of two federal rules to crack down on downer abuses and to require euthanasia of non-ambulatory cows.
It was The HSUS again that led the successful fight to ban the practice of tail-docking of dairy cows, which is now finally being phased out by the industry. But other animal welfare problems remain, including chronic mastitis and lameness within herds.
Both the dairy industry and Congress can collaborate to improve the future of the dairy industry but they should do it more intelligently. With the support of the industry, Congress can establish basic animal welfare standards for the treatment of cows and other farm animals. Instead of doing that, Congress is stonewalling on animal welfare reforms and continuing to provide subsidies to Big Ag and to promote anti-competitive practices to give one sector of the agricultural economy a leg up over others. Those aren’t the right plays, and lawmakers should hear from you on it.
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