Family farm, direct delivery, premium quality, professional care, single source—these terms are commonplace on the dairy products which line our supermarket shelves. However, do they guarantee the welfare of the most important actor in the dairy production process, the mother cow?
Today (April 18), the Environment & Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST) will hold a press conference and lay out ‘Five Indicators of Suffering’, calling on the Council of Agriculture to confront the serious challenges facing the NTD $10.1 billion dairy industry and act swiftly to enact guidelines for the welfare of Taiwan’s 111,376 dairy cows.
The “Five Indicators of Suffering”:
1.Continuous impregnation and intensive milk production cycles cause severe energy imbalances and excessive strain on mother cows.
Like humans, dairy cows are mammals, and only produce milk after birth for the nourishment of their offspring. To maximize production, dairy cows endure a continuous cycle of artificial insemination, pregnancy, birth, and lactation. Dairy cows will lactate to 305 days after birth, however due to the industry’s desire to squeeze maximum yield from each cow, lactating cows will be re-impregnated on their 60th day of lactation. Mother cows will thus undergo concurrent pregnancy and lactation, putting their bodies under enormous strain. Additionally, modern dairy cows have been selectively bred produce many times their natural state in order to maximize yields.
Cows’ abdomens are unable to extend outwards like those of pregnant humans, meaning that pressure is exerted inwards towards cows’ internal organs. This creates difficulty eating at a time when mother cows must devote 30% of their energy intake to the growing fetus, while simultaneously producing milk from the previous cycle. Often this leads to negative energy balance (NEB) and a deterioration of the cow’s physical state, which can increase the incidence of postpartum metabolic and reproductive diseases, and other health problems.
2.Holstein dairy cows originate from temperate climates, and are ill-suited to Taiwan’s hot and humid conditions.
Holstein cattle originate from temperate zones with a temperature range of -5 to 21°C, and have an optimum ambient temperature of 15°C. Dairy cows will undergo heat stress when the Temperature Humidity Index (THI) reaches a value of 72. More than 85% of Taiwan’s dairy cows are raised south of Taichung, where the annual average THI value can be calculated as 74, reaching 79-81 for four months of the year.
It can be said that dairy cows living in Taiwan’s hot and humid climate endure heat stress for up to 240 days per year. High milk production increases susceptibility to heat stress, worsening cows’ extreme mental and physical discomfort.
3.Poor breeding conditions and substandard management cause dairy cows to suffer from mastitis, foot rot, and other diseases.
Dairy cows can have a natural lifespan of 15-20 years, however in Taiwan the average dairy cow reaches just 5.4 years of age. According to research by the COA’s Livestock Research Institute, 41% of cows are culled due to lactation-related problems, 19% due to hoof-related problems, and 11.6% due to reproductive disorders.
The problems of mastitis and foot-rot, which together account for 60% of dairy cow culling, are directly linked to farm environment and management. In comfortable, dry, spacious environments, cows can lie for 14 hours per day, increasing blood flow and maintaining udder health. However, in crowded or uncomfortable environments, cows will spend more time standing, causing hoof lesions. Further, without clean, dry, litter, cows’ udders are more likely to come into contact with excrement and other contaminants, increasing the likelihood of mastitis or infections. This problem is exacerbated by unnaturally high milk yields, repressed immunity, damp environments, and antibiotic resistance.
4.Husbandry practices such as dehorning, branding, foot paring, milking, rectal palpation, and calf-mother separation, induce a lifetime of physical and psychological torment.
Due to low awareness of animal welfare and a lack of government regulations, many routine farming practices that inflict great suffering on dairy cows are conducted without any form of pain alleviation of anesthesia.
Artificial insemination and pregnancy checks are often conducted without lubrication, with workers’ arms inserted directly into the cow’s rectum. Mothers and calves are routinely separated at birth, with calves placed alone in small metal cages and deprived of the ability to suckle their mother’s milk. Calves horns are debudded with no regard for the proper pre- and post-procedure pain relief. These routine human interferences are sources of extreme distress for Taiwanese dairy cows, compounding their already difficult plight.
5.Taiwan’s veterinary workforce is insufficient to ensure the welfare of dairy cows.
Taiwan’s attempts to promote technical improvement in the dairy industry have been plagued with issues, with farmers themselves responsible for follow up. 40 years after its introduction, just 40% of farmers are involved in the relevant program, while just 35% use computerised management systems that free up labor to respond to issues of welfare and disease. In sum, professional skills, knowledge of animal welfare, and veterinary care manpower lag well behind international standards in the family-business dominated industry.
Industrial information, such as how much milk is discarded—is not disclosed. The so-called AA-, A-, and B-grade milk grades are determined by dairy companies, and the central government offers no relevant statistics or analysis.
EAST calls on the government and industry to lift standards of animal welfare in the Taiwanese dairy industry:
The government should enact animal welfare standards for dairy cattle without delay, establish a professional counseling group, help farmers to raise their knowledge and skill levels, grade farm levels, and release assessment data. .
Dairy processing plants should announce their welfare policies and require farmers to participate in "Dairy Herd Performance Improvement Programs", actively adopt "Electronic Health Monitoring" systems and "Automation Equipment", and publish evaluation criteria for source farms.
Raw milk inspection and discarded raw milk data should be transparent and made available for consumers to review; the government should assess this data and monitor the progress of dairy animal welfare improvement measures.