Dairy Industry Misses Chance to Improve Animal Care Standards

According to the US Department of Agriculture, in 2021 the average number of US dairy cows involved in milk production at any given time was 9.45 million. The vast majority of them live within “CAFOs” (concentrated animal feeding operations, a.k.a. factory farms) in barren dry lots or “freestall” barns where they have little or no outside access or opportunity for exercise.

photo by Seventyfour

Today’s dairy cows have been selectively bred to produce up to 12 times the amount of milk they would naturally produce to feed their calves. Producing such enormous quantities of milk takes a physical toll, and dairy cows typically remain in production only three or four years before they are sent to slaughter. 

These cows unquestionably suffer poor welfare as a result of production practices. With no federal laws to govern the treatment of animals on farms, and most state laws (particularly in high-production states) designed to protect the industry not the animals, only industry standards remain to address the welfare of these cows. 

Since 2009, the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) has audited and certified dairy producers and processors based on standards in five categories, including animal welfare. According to the NMPF, the certification covers 99 percent of dairy produced in the United States. 

FARM performs on-farm audits every three years and issues “improvement plans,” whereby producers who have not met certain standards have varying amounts of time (from one month to three years) to comply before facing decertification. However, nearly half of FARM’s standards are not mandatory—if they are unmet, no corrective action is taken. 

In late 2021, FARM initiated a revision of its animal care standards, which it does every three years. In August 2022, AWI provided recommendations to FARM for improving the standards based on current science, international welfare standards, and consumer expectations. Our recommendations addressed several areas, including but not limited to housing, transport, and pain relief. To support our recommendations, we commissioned public surveys to determine consumer attitudes toward common dairy industry practices. 

Shortly after birth, calves are removed from their mothers. In the dairy industry, male calves are killed immediately or raised for veal or beef. Female calves are typically housed for the first several months of their lives in individual hutches or pens, often outdoors even in inclement weather, without contact with other calves. According to the USDA’s most recent survey of the US dairy industry in 2014, about 65 percent of pre-weaned calves were housed individually. 
FARM’s housing standards only require that calves be able to stand up, lie down, adopt normal resting postures, and have visual contact with other cattle. AWI recommended that calves be housed in pairs or groups as early as possible. Studies indicate that with proper management, calves can be housed together as early as 1–3 days old without issue. In a consumer perception survey commissioned by AWI, 68 percent of consumers indicated that housing calves individually for the first several months of their lives without contact with other calves was either “totally” (49%) or “somewhat” (19%) unacceptable. 

With respect to adult cattle, FARM does recommend that all animals be allowed daily exercise—but failure to provide this does not result in corrective action. FARM neither mandates nor suggests that cows be allowed access to the outdoors. AWI recommended that FARM not only enforce a requirement for exercise, but also require outdoor access. Such measures would offer cows and calves the opportunity to socialize and engage in natural behaviors, both of which are essential to their overall welfare. Our survey indicated that constant confinement and lack of outdoor access are contrary to what consumers expect: 73 percent of consumers surveyed stated that a failure to allow outdoor access was either totally (56%) or somewhat (17%) unacceptable.

Pain Relief 
As with most farm animals, dairy cows endure painful physical alterations such as disbudding, dehorning, castration, and branding, usually at a young age. These alterations are almost always performed without pain relief. 

The pre-revision standards required pain mitigation for disbudding or dehorning. However, producers that failed to comply were allowed three years to implement pain relief procedures. The standards also suggested, but didn’t require, pain relief for castration and branding. AWI recommended that the revised standards mandate pain mitigation for all painful procedures, and that producers be required to implement pain mitigation within nine months of a noncompliance determination. Of consumers surveyed, 81 percent agreed that pain relief was either very (53%) or somewhat (28%) important for disbudding or dehorning, and 82 percent felt it was either very (55%) or somewhat (27%) important for castration.

Full Enforceability 
AWI recommended that FARM make all its animal welfare standards mandatory for producers to achieve certification—a necessary step if consumers are to have confidence that the dairy industry holds itself to higher standards of animal care, rather than merely aspiring to higher standards. Unsurprisingly, 83 percent of consumers surveyed either strongly (49%) or somewhat (34%) agreed that if an industry trade association provides certifications based on standards related to animal welfare, producers should be required to meet all such standards to be certified.

Certain industry practices are becoming less defensible from a scientific perspective, even as consumers of dairy products are becoming more concerned about the cows’ welfare. The industry, however, has been less than enthusiastic about adapting to the science or meeting consumer expectations. When FARM published the revised guidelines in September, the only changes incorporated from AWI’s recommendations were a decrease in the time to comply with the requirement of providing pain relief for disbudding and dehorning and making pain relief for castration and branding mandatory. 

While FARM made some minor improvements to its animal care standards, it fell woefully short of what AWI knows consumers expect and what science supports. We encourage you to look for dairy products certified by third party programs recommended in the “best choices” section of AWI’s A Consumer’s Guide to Food Labels and Animal Welfare or buy nondairy alternatives to ensure that you do not contribute to the suffering of dairy cows. 

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