Economy: Farming Cruelties
A cow without a tail, you see, is a sad sight. If you live in New York City, as I used to, you probably haven't been around a cow lately and therefore might not be able to picture just how odd a cow looks without her tail. So, try to imagine a golden retriever, a tiger cat, or a horse with its tail lopped off. Sad, right? At our cattle ranch, where the cows have their tails intact - the older cows' tails just reaching the blades of grass - I have even found myself admiring the beauty and grace of the cow's tail as she swishes it around.
And I have often observed just how useful tails are to cattle. At certain times of year, cows' tails are in constant motion, flicking away flies and other insects that gather on their backs. Other than predators, which most farm animals don't have to worry about very much, flies are the bane of a cow's existence. And confinement dairies, which often have dense fly populations, are places where cows are especially in need of their tails.
But lest you think of the dairy farmer's wife as some misguided villain, it's important to point out that she's just following the trends of her trade. The Wisconsin dairy farm I visited is in fact becoming the norm. Although the Department of Agriculture does not keep official records on the practice, animal protection advocates say that cutting off most or all of animals' tails - known as "tail docking" - is now commonplace in the livestock and dairy industries.
The reasons given in the dairy business are convenience in milking and disease prevention. But there is little proof that tail docking, which is generally done without anesthetic, reduces disease - and there's plenty of evidence that it makes a cow's life unpleasant. In a 2001 article published in the Journal of Dairy Science, University of Wisconsin researchers noted that when it comes to tail docking, "no positive benefits to the cow have been identified."
Tail docking is also commonplace in the hog industry. Having visited numerous industrial-style hog operations, I've seen nothing but truncated tails on pigs and piglets. (The tails are generally clipped off with wire cutters - and without anesthetic.)
Like a dairy cow, a pig uses its tail not only to shoo away insects but also to communicate. Like dogs, pigs wag their tails when they are happy, twitch them when they are nervous, let them drop straight down when they are sick. They may stick them straight out behind them when they are frightened or alarmed.
The pork industry's rationale for tail docking is that pigs bite each other's tails and that the tails can then become infected. When pigs' tails are cut off, the stubs stay intensely sore and so, the theory goes, the bite will cause so much pain that the bitee will move away from the biter. (The industry refers to this as "avoidance behavior.")
Now, part of this is true: tail biting is common in pig herds in confinement buildings. But isn't the tail biting a direct result of how they're being reared - in metal buildings with concrete floors, giving pigs nothing to occupy their active minds? In nature, pigs spend most of their days rooting around in the dirt, exploring and grazing. Stuck inside, bored pigs often bite one anothers' tails - one of the many "vices" or abnormal behaviors that occur when pigs are raised in confinement.
However, the real question is not why tail biting occurs in modern hog buildings but whether cutting off the tails of pigs raised in confinement reduces it. So far, the research is not encouraging. Several European studies show that cutting off pigs' tails has little or none of the desired effect. A 2003 British study, for example, found that "tail docking was associated with a three-fold increase in the risk of tail biting." The Animal Welfare Institute, which promotes humane animal farming, prohibits tail docking in its pig farming protocols. The standards state, "A behaviorally appropriate environment and good nutrition normally eliminate the need for routine tail-docking." (Full disclosure: My husband founded a network of family farms that insists on these methods.)
Given the suffering it causes animals and its dubious benefits, tail docking should be stopped. Britain, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland all prohibit tail docking of dairy cows, and the European Union adopted a directive in 1991 barring routine docking of pigs' tails. While the Department of Agriculture has undertaken a study of pig tail docking that is expected to be released in September, the department should begin to find ways to discourage livestock and dairy farmers from their across-the-board embrace of the practice. Eventually, though, our consciences and common sense - as well as science - should tell us that we need an outright ban.
Until that day, the only way to see real pigs' tails will be to find a farmer using traditional farming methods. Luckily, I know quite a few. Walking through the pastures that belong to Paul Willis, an Iowa hog farmer, it's a relief to see tails waving in the air - to see pigs chasing one another, rolling in the grass, digging in the earth. Mr. Willis feels that he does not need to dock his animals' tails. His pigs have plenty to occupy themselves. And, he adds, "I like seeing pigs with their tails."
Nicolette Hahn Niman is a lawyer and rancher.
Alejo Orvañanos forwarded a New York Times op-ed, whose author reported: I visited a typical modern dairy, with cows living indoors in a metal building with concrete floors, rather than in the bucolic setting many of us imagine. As I walked through the place with the farmer's wife, I noticed that the cows' tails had been cut off and I asked her why. "Well, it's just easier to milk them without their tails," she explained, adding, "My husband didn't like the idea, so I did it while he was away fishing for the weekend." I felt a warm rush of affection for her husband. Speaking from experience, Gene Franklin objects that the op-ed does not elaborate on why lack of a tail makes the cow 'easier to milk.': Often her tail gets soaked in manure and urine in the natural process of elimination. You only have to be slapped across the face once with such a tail while kneeling to milk to wish the tail gone. I early learned to clamp her tail under my closed left knee to avoid this consequence. On the other hand I only had to milk one cow, so efficiency was not a big deal in my case. However, I strongly agree that docking either pigs or cows is cruel and unusual punishment and should be avoided.
RH: I thought that on modern farms cows were milked mechanically.