Guest Commentary: Animal Welfare in the Dairy Industry

Bernie Rollin, PhD, University Distinguished Professor, Professor of Philosophy, Professor of Animal Sciences, Professor of Biomedical Sciences and University Bioethicist, Colorado State University,


Addressing welfare issues in the dairy industry is considerably more challenging and vexatious than doing so in the beef industry. There are variety of reasons for this, but prominent among them is the fact that the dairy industry is much further removed from its traditional husbandry base. In addition, there is unfortunately a lack of understanding across modern agriculture of the meaning of the concept of animal welfare.

What the agricultural industry often forgets or fails to realize is that the concept of animal welfare is not a purely empirical or scientific concept. Rather, it is a value laden concept, based in ethical judgments, rather than being strictly a matter of gathering facts. When I served on the Pew Commission, a group that did the first systematic analysis of modern industrialized agriculture, we encountered industry representatives who instantiated this lack of understanding.

For example, one such person admitted to being “nervous” about the Commission, but indicated that she would be happy if we based everything we said on “sound science.” I replied that if the question we were addressing was how to raise animals in confinement situations, we could indeed answer that question by appeal to good science. However, I pointed out, the commission was asking rather ought we raise animals in strict confinement, and that was an ethical question.

In other words, “animal welfare” is not a concept derived strictly from gathering data. If we wish to know an animal’s weight, we place it upon a scale. On the other hand, we cannot build a simple machine to measure whether animal is possessed of positive well-being, unless we first discuss the question of what counts as well- being for that sort of creature.  When we ask about an animal’s welfare, especially but not exclusively in the case of animals managed by people, we are making reference to what we believe that we who raise the animal owe the animal and to what extent. Even if we are talking about an animal in nature, not one under the aegis of human beings, to ask about its welfare is to ask whether we feel the animal is getting what we feel it ought to be getting, what it deserves, given its needs and nature. Thus animal welfare is in part an ethical notion.

Perceptions versus science

What will count as animal welfare depends upon the ethical framework of the person raising the issue. For example, an agricultural industry document once affirmed that an animal enjoyed good welfare if and only if it was economically productive. On the other hand, the British Farm Animal Welfare Council based their definition of animal welfare on what the animal experiences, and correlatively on the famous Five Freedoms. These two definitions are predicated on differing ethical perspectives, and one cannot decide between them by appealing to science. In fact, the situation is reversed. What one counts as sound science relevant to animal welfare will depend on what ethical perspective one adopts!

And there exist an indefinite number of perspectives on animal welfare. The obvious question, then, is whose perspective will prevail? And the answer is equally obvious – that of society in general, or the consumer, based on the prevalent and dominant social attitude regarding what we owe animals morally.

By a happy coincidence relevant to our discussion of dairy welfare, I recently received a question from the editor of my ethics column for The Canadian Veterinary Journal. Here is the query:

Recent studies have shown that taking urban visitors on tours of carefully chosen and well-run livestock operations does not always produce a positive response regarding the care of farm animals. For example, when members of the public visit free stall dairy barns  where cows are clean and comfortable with only rare cases of lameness and other “production diseases,” the response of the urban visitor is not always positive. Standard farm practices such as the removal of the calf at birth from its mother and the inability of cows to graze at pasture are considered both unnatural and disturbing to many urban visitors. Is educating the public regarding modern livestock production practices the correct approach to convincing the public that current industry practices ensure the welfare of farm animals?

Thus the dairy industry, and indeed the entire agricultural industry, needs to understand the ethical perspective of society in general in order to adequately address society’s concerns regarding the welfare of animals in agriculture. While educating the public is a vital part of changing societal attitudes, it is obviously not enough. In fact, industry has done just the opposite historically, running deceptive advertisements showing chickens in a 19th century mixed farm barnyard and declaring that “at Mega-Farms we raise happy chickens.” In the same vein, essentially pressing a false vision, were the “happy cow” ads from California. All that such falsification does is erode the credibility of the relevant industries!

To the credit of pork giant Smithfield Farms, they asked me in 2008 what to do about social concern for animal welfare. My response was to eliminate gestation crates, as the general public (and indeed many people in animal agriculture) saw them as grossly violative of pigs’ fundamental needs and natures. I further suggested that they poll consumers. They did so, and found that 78% of consumers intensely disliked gestation crates. They therefore immediately committed to abolishing such crates, and proceeded to develop open housing! That was a wise, prudential, and morally praiseworthy move.

Human role in husbandry

In an effort to understand the proper industry response to the issue of separating the calf from cow immediately at birth, I asked a number of respected, long- time, highly respected dairy practitioners their view of the ethics of this practice. One individual told me that this was one of the biggest affronts against animal welfare in the dairy industry, as evidenced by the bawling of both cow and calf. Another equally respected practitioner pooh-poohed this issue as “sentimental and anthropomorphic.” I found out that some European countries allow the calf and the cow to be together during the day, with the cow being milked at night. I was told, however, that such a practice makes it very difficult to handle, and therefore to milk, the heifer when she reaches maturity, not having become accustomed to humans. A colleague of mine who is a dairy practitioner made two related points: First, modern dairy has unwittingly selected against a strong maternal instinct. Second, the role of the mother in raising the calf now falls to dairy workers possessed of excellent husbandry skills, so the calf grows up very comfortable with humans.

Once again, we find a significant range of opinions among veterinarians expert in dairy production, again illustrating that answers to welfare questions are not provided simply by science. The ultimate arbiter of acceptable practices will be society and the consumer.

While I have written numerous books on what the social ethic expects of agriculture, I can only sketch that here in an extremely abbreviated form. We need to recall the image of agriculture that has been inculcated into us over generations. This is basically the view that farmers follow the precepts of good husbandry, the key to agricultural success for almost 12,000 years. This is an image of pastoral agriculture – animals on grass with all of their biological and psychological interests being met. This view is immortalized in everything from children’s books and stories to cartoons. Animals are individuals, not commodities; agriculture is as much a way of life as of making a living.

It is therefore no wonder that people have difficulty accepting cows on concrete, not on grass, or six chickens in a miniscule cage. The image that the public has is of happy farm animals, tended to by good husbandry people. In my own writings, I have pointed out that there are two fundamental components to societal expectations. First, that animals get to live their lives in accordance with what Aristotle called their telos, their biological and psychological natures, their intrinsic pigness or cowness. It is this notion, embedded in citizens’ minds, that has caused zoos to change from barren prisons to some semblance of natural environments. Again, it is what has led society to demand the end to animal acts in circuses, where we force animals into highly unnatural behaviors that suit our fancies, not their natures, despite the iconic nature of the circus. The same holds true of Sea World being forced to eliminate killer whale shows.

In addition to accommodations that suit the animal telos, society also demands the elimination or absolute minimization of animal pain. Indeed, the failure of the research community to even acknowledge that animals feel pain, let alone to manage it, led to the imposition of constraints on the free and unfettered use of animals in science all over the world during the late 20th century. After all, in today’s world, pain is seen as “the worst of all evils,” as one book on anesthesia puts it. And pain is defined in the broadest sense, so as to include distress. It is this for example that drives the public to recoil in horror at removal of the calf from its mother as soon as it is born.

What society demands of animal agriculture is that animal pain be controlled, animal distress and misery be curtailed, and that animal natures be respected. In other words, what is demanded is sort of treatment that was axiomatic to good husbandry. If agriculture wishes to educate the public, it must point out what aspects of husbandry are impossible to achieve fully in today’s world, and also explain why animal nature cannot be accommodated.

To return to the examples cited in the Canadian Veterinary Journal case, the industry must explain, in terms the public can understand and accept, why the calf cannot be left with the mother for some time. After all, anyone who has witnessed the bawling that both mother and calf evidence after separation would raise that question, including some of my bovine veterinarian friends, who opine that the cow’s distress is very profound. In addition, as we know from the beef industry, calves can nurse until nine months of age if allowed to do so.

It appears to me that calves could be left with cows for at least part of the day, though the industry clearly has so increased productivity that productivity will be diminished. On the other hand, given that the industry has so increased productivity, it can certainly tolerate some loss for the sake of the animals’ welfare, thereby enjoying a positive image in the public mind. There are in fact some recent articles arguing not only for such an approach, but affirming that it increases health and profit.

Cows on grass, grazing contentedly, is an iconic and archetypal image of agriculture, portraying it in a positive light. It is for this reason when the Swedish Parliament passed their progressive animal welfare law in 1989, a major component of that law was to “grant to cattle in perpetuity the right to graze.” A cow spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year on concrete negatively affects welfare and is societally unacceptable.

The unequivocal and relentless breeding of dairy cattle for productivity alone, ie for milk production, which has caused breeding problems, foot and leg problems, and other problems must be modified. In addition, the fact that today’s dairy cow has greatly truncated longevity, is again going to be disturbing to society. I readily acknowledge that the industry’s concern with “cow comfort” is a salubrious step in the right direction. But I would argue that to assure future sustainability of the industry, what is needed is nothing short of meaningful steps towards good husbandry and respect for the animal.

What I would further argue is that what is needed is some meaningful acknowledgment of the animals’ needs and natures and the recognition that such acknowledgment trumps in the social mind the ever-increasing and relentless drive to get more and more milk from the animals at the expense of their quality of life. I am not saying that we need to abandon all of the significant advances have been made in dairy production. But these advances should not proceed at the expense of the animals having good lives.

Animal agriculture, 20 years ago, used to complain that the public does not know where its food comes from. Now the public is beginning to know, and still doesn’t like some of the mainstays of the industry. So far has the industry strayed, that an abusive, unnecessary, and scientifically indefensible practice like tail- docking required a major industry effort to abolish, which it has done, to its credit.

What I would therefore suggest is that the industry on its own take a long, hard look at some of the issues that have arisen in modern dairy production, and provide whatever fixes are technologically and economically feasible.  A failure to do this could well lead to repressive societal action with a timetable imposed upon the industry. To paraphrase veterinarian and historian Calvin Schwabe’s immortal phrase, “the cow is the mother of the human race, and in many ways common practice in the industry is no way to treat your mother.”

Everyone who has considered these issues realizes that it is far less arduous and painful to self- regulate than to accommodate external regulation by well-meaning people who are nonetheless ignorant of the economic and technological constraints on the dairy industry. None of this is of course going to be easy, but, as has often been said, if doing the right thing was easy, everyone would be doing the right thing.

Adapting to society’s changing norms

I have often made the following observation about vectoring societal animal welfare concerns into agriculture: The ancient Stoic philosophers had a wonderful metaphor adaptable to the need for professions to bend to the societal ethic. Paraphrasing them, I point out that social ethics can be schematized as an oxcart on its way to a nearby town. You are chained to the oxcart. You have two choices--you can dig in your heels and resist, in which case you will arrive at the town broken and bleeding. Or you could walk when the oxcart walks, rest when it rests, in which case you will be unscathed.

It is not as if there are no models of industry changing to fit societal ethics. It is arguable that morally based boycotting of South African business was instrumental in bringing about the end of apartheid, and similar boycotting of some farm products in the U.S. led to significant improvements in the living situations of farm workers.  It is de rigeur for major corporations to have reasonable numbers of minorities visibly peopling their ranks, and for liquor companies to advertise on behalf of moderation in alcohol consumption.  Cigarette companies now press upon the public a message that cigarettes kill, and extol their involvement in protecting battered women; and forestry and oil companies spend millions (even billions) to persuade the public of their environmental commitments.  CNN reported that “green” investment funds grew significantly faster than ordinary funds, and reports of child labor or sweatshop working conditions can literally destroy product markets overnight.

The same point can be made regarding any of the social- ethical revolutions of the past 40 years: feminism, civil rights, environmentalism, affirmative action, consumer advocacy, pro- and anti-abortion activism, homosexual rights, children’s rights, the student movement, antiwar activism, public rejection of biotechnology, political correctness. Such changes have in fact occurred so smoothly, that many younger people cannot imagine a world in which things were different! Industry changing to accommodate major societal concerns about animal treatment is no different. By the same token, failing to make such accommodation can not only eliminate economic viability, but can also truncate and abort freedom and autonomy.