7 min read

Cutting Through The Nonsense On Tail-Cutting

A couple of years ago I visited perhaps the largest dairy farm in the United States – Fair Oaks Farm in northwest Indiana, which at the time had 36,000 cows, divided into 3,000 cows per pod. Expecting to be pretty horrified by the operation, I was pleasantly surprised by the care provided to the animals. Among other things, the owner, Mike McCloskey, refused to cut off the tails of the cows. When I saw the cows, they were swinging their tails, as they are meant to do.

If the biggest dairy in the country can make it work without tail-docking, so can other producers here. There's nothing remarkable about running a dairy and not mutilating the appendages of the animals. Other big dairy-producing nations, including Australia, the European Union, and New Zealand, all maintain strong, anti-tail-docking policies.

The meat and dairy industries pay frequent lip service to the science of animal welfare – all too often as a hedge or an excuse to sidestep actual animal welfare reforms. On the topic of tail-cutting – the practice of painfully cutting or crushing the tails off of dairy calves – there is as close to a scientific consensus as we get in society. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, and veterinary authorities around the world say that the practice is bad for animal welfare and completely unnecessary.

So why are major dairy producers in the United States still routinely cutting and crushing their cows' tails? They're stubborn, and want to do what they want to do – and their trade associations oppose any regulations or standards to govern their behavior, even as they recognize the practice is unnecessary and inhumane. Although the dairy industry doesn't release numbers, a recent estimate suggested that as many as half of them routinely cut and crush their cows' tails. And the dairy industry continues to lobby against rules to prevent the practice, though we've succeeded in passing such laws or regulations in states such as California (the nation's largest milk-producing state), Ohio, and Rhode Island.

This week we're launching a new website to draw attention to the issue: CowsNeedTails.com. It explains that cows need their tails to ward off flies and other biting insects, and that the amputation is typically done without any pain relief, and may leave the cow in chronic pain. I encourage you to visit the site and then take action to protect cows from this painful and unnecessary procedure. Urge your lawmakers to introduce legislation to outlaw this inhumane, scientifically discredited practice. And use your purchasing power in the marketplace to support that goal, too.

It's long past time for American dairy producers to stop tail-cutting. In 2012, the National Milk Producers Federation took a positive first step, when it voted to oppose tail-docking, recognizing that the practice is unnecessary. But the Federation set a phase-out date of 2022 – an inexplicably long time, since farmers don't need to invest in new technology; they could stop cutting the tails off their cows tomorrow. The industry's own veterinarians concluded five years ago that the "[c]urrent scientific literature indicates that routine tail docking provides no benefit to the animal." And the AVMA concludes that the practice is not only unnecessary, but may cause cows distress and chronic pain. Dairy Australia, the country's dairy trade association, neatly sums up the arguments of hold-out dairy producers, noting "[t]ail docking in the dairy industry is largely based on habits, attitudes and tradition, rather than good science or real need."

Kraft Foods is now requiring its milk suppliers to phase out tail docking, while other food industry giants, including Dunkin Brands, Nestle, Sodexo, and Starbucks, have condemned the practice and aim to phase it out, too. If the dairy industry is serious about its commitment to science-based standards for animal welfare, it should show some leadership on this issue and bring a complete and immediate end to tail-cutting.