An article titled ‘The elephant in the room’ which appeared in the August 2020 issue of Ontario Dairy Farmer provides a disturbing glimpse into Canadian dairy industry practices.
As part of an internet survey (which itself was part the Canadian National Dairy Study funded by Dairy Farmers of Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), Canadian dairy producers were asked about mortality and euthanasia practices on their farms.
Their responses1,2 exposed serious violations of the Canadian Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle and significant animal welfare breaches, specifically in relation to the frequency of animals left to suffer and die unassisted and the use of an inhumane euthanasia method: blunt force trauma.
Key findings of the survey:
- 81% of respondents reported that at least one animal died unassisted (ie. was left to suffer and die on their own);
- Approximately 7% of respondents reported using blunt force to euthanize animals. The use of this method was much higher for euthanasia of male dairy calves (34%) than for female calves (7%);
- Québec respondents euthanized animals using blunt force more often than farmers from other regions (72% vs 18% in Ontario and 10% in Atlantic Canada);
- 53% of respondents using blunt force indicated it was their primary method of calf euthanasia;
- Although respondents reported that the proportion of male calves euthanized on farm ranged from 1 to 100%, an average of 19% of male calves were killed immediately after birth;
- 18% of respondents stated they did not always feed male calves as much as female calves and 9% stated that they did not always feed colostrum to male calves (confirming researchers’ expectations as “many male calves enter rearing facilities with a lack of subcutaneous fat covering their frame or even an emaciated appearance”).
As ineffective as it is grizzly, blunt force trauma is deemed an unacceptable form of euthanasia in the Canadian Code of Practice. While it’s tempting to view the survey findings as unrepresentative, given that the calf mortality questions had the lowest response rate of all questions in the survey (probably due to socially desirable responding), it’s likely the true percentage of dairy producers practicing blunt force trauma is actually much higher.
The abandonment of sick and dying animals on Canadian farms has been regularly documented by animal welfare investigators, but isn’t a strictly Canadian animal welfare issue. The high rate of abandonment revealed by this survey is consistent with mortality studies worldwide. For example, the authors of this survey note that three other studies3,4,5 found high rates of mortality which the authors conclude “may be indicative of poor animal welfare on the farm”. The authors continue: “Given the high proportion of unassisted mortality, these findings also suggest that many animals may have compromised welfare before death that could have been addressed earlier.” In fact, a fourth study6 found that 90% of deaths of female calves and 60% of deaths of adult cows were unassisted.
Dairy producers hide behind glossy images of healthy cows on pasture but the truth is very far from this bucolic image. Bludgeoning the heads of just-born calves, leaving sick animals to suffer and die, and allowing the market value of a sentient being to dictate the level of care he or she receives is a much more accurate reflection of dairy producer’s practices.
1. Roche, Steven & Genore, R. & Renaud, David & Shock, D.A. & Bauman, Cathy & Croyle, S. & Dubuc, Jocelyn & Keefe, G.P. & Kelton, D.F. (2020). Short communication: Describing mortality and euthanasia practices on Canadian dairy farms. Journal of Dairy Science. 103. 10.3168/jds.2019-17595.
2. Renaud DL, Duffield TF, LeBlanc SJ, Haley DB, Kelton DF. Management practices for male calves on Canadian dairy farms. J Dairy Sci. 2017;100(8):6862-6871. doi:10.3168/jds.2017-12750.
3. C.W.R. Compton, C. Heuer, P.T. Thomsen, T.E. Carpenter, C.V.C. Phyn, S. McDougall, Invited review: A systematic literature review and meta-analysis of mortality and culling in dairy cattle. J. Dairy Sci.. 100, 2017, 1-16 10.3168/jds.2016-11302 28341041
4. K. Alvåsen, P.T. Thomsen, C.H. Sandgren, M.J. Mörk, U. Emanuelson, Risk factors for unassisted on-farm death in Swedish dairy cows. Anim. Welf.. 23, 2014, 63-70 10.7120/09627286.23.1.063
5. P.T. Thomsen, A.M. Kjeldsen, J.T. Sørensen, H. Houe, Mortality (including euthanasia) among Danish dairy cows (1990 – 2001). Prev. Vet. Med.. 62, 2004, 19-33 10.1016/j.prevetmed.2003.09.002 15154682
6. USDA-APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), Dairy 2014: Health and management practices on U.S. dairy operations, 2014. USDA-APHIS National Animal Health Monitoring System.