Consumers picture dairy cows grazing contently on pasture in green fields. But a new report by the European Commission’s DG Sante reveals this idyllic image to be far from the truth for many of the EU’s 23.5 million dairy cows.
The European Commission’s report is based on visits carried out by veterinary officials from Directorate F to the Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Estonia and the UK plus information from stakeholders across the EU.
The report reveals that:
- Dairy farming has become so intensive that cows are now producing six to ten times more milk than they would do naturally for their calves. The report quotes leading dairy expert Prof. John Webster as saying that today’s cows are having to work as hard as Tour de France cyclists to provide such high milk yields. The European Food Safety Authority had already concluded several years ago that “genetic selection for high milk yield is the major factor causing poor welfare, in particular health problems, in dairy cows”.
- In Austria, around 82% of dairy farms use a tethered husbandry system. In tether systems cows are often unable to move other than to lie down and stand up and take a few steps backwards, forwards & sideways. Agrarheute reports that one third of Bavarian dairy cows are still being tied all year round.
- Lameness – and mastitis – are among the most frequent welfare problems for EU dairy cows.
The report follows a recent study prepared for the European Parliament which stresses that “dairy cow welfare […] may be considered to be the second greatest animal welfare problem in the EU”.
In 2015 Eurogroup for Animals and member organisation Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) produced a report showing that many EU dairy cows are kept in filthy, unhygienic conditions and that swollen udders, sores and injuries are a regular occurrence. The report found that many Member States are not making a serious attempt to enforce EU rules on minimum protection measures for animals kept for farming purposes.
Consumers are being kept in the dark – milk and dairy products are usually not labelled as to farming method. EU law requires eggs and egg packs to be labelled as to method of production; this has played an important part in the huge shift away from cage eggs in much of the EU. Compassion and Eurogroup are calling for EU law to require milk, cheese and butter to be labelled as to farming method, as this would enable consumers who buy dairy products to support pasture-based systems.
Reineke Hameleers, Director of Eurogroup for Animals, says ”We are calling on Europe’s dairy sector and on the European Commission to urgently address the problems highlighted by this report. The dairy industry must tackle the high levels of painful lameness and mastitis in dairy cows. Farmers should also end ‘zero-grazing’ systems in which cows are confined indoors all year round, as well as tethering systems.”