The second worst animal welfare problem in Europe? Here’s what’s really happening to dairy cows
Are you clued up when it comes to what factory farmed dairy cows in Europe go through? Millions of these animals are spending nearly their whole lives sick, confined and in pain. Here are some of the main problems they face - and how policymakers should address them as they continue to revise the animal welfare legislation.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a ‘healthy’ dairy cow in a factory farm. Forced to produce massive amounts of milk and subjected to zero-grazing systems, inadequate housing and improper monitoring and treatment, millions of these poor beings spend nearly their whole lives in pain. In fact, their health problems are so severe that they’re considered by the European Union to be the second-worst animal welfare problem in Europe. With that said, the welfare laws for dairy cows have not been addressed for decades. It’s time that changes.
The stats listed below are from our 2021 No Animal Left Behind report.
Across factory farms in the EU, dairy cows commonly suffer from two major challenges:
- Lameness, which hinders their movements and increases their susceptibility to mastitis and other metabolic disorders. There hasn’t been a meaningful reduction in the prevalence of this illness for the past 20 years, which affects up to 31% of dairy cows in industrial farming systems
- Mastitis, which can permanently injure their udders and is caused by physical trauma and infections. It affects between 20% - 30% of cows per herd, and it can be very hard to treat and has a high chance to come back.
Lack of access to pasture is a big reason why these dairy cows are suffering so much
Cows have evolved to thrive on pasture, where they can graze, exercise, socialise, and explore the environment at their will. These natural habits are critical for their welfare, and are something they’re strongly motivated to do. Dairy cows have been known to push against weighted gates to access pasture, even when they’ve been hungry and exhausted - clearly, their desire to be in these spaces is deeply-rooted, regardless of their physical state.
Cows simply need pasture. There’s no long-term replacement for it. However, surveys show that there has been a decline in grazing dairy cows across Europe over the past decade, with evidence concurrently showing that this lack of access to the outdoors has contributed to health issues like mastitis, dystocia, lameness, and teat trampling.
Dairy cows and calves also spend too much time alone, bored and starving
The indoor environment millions of dairy cows are forced to live in is nowhere near good enough to keep them satisfied, comfortable and sickness-free. Numerous cows are tethered within ‘tie-stall systems’ where they find it incredibly difficult to lie down and relax, and where they are far more likely to get sick (as opposed to cows in ‘loose-housed’ systems, who can roam and look after themselves more effectively).
Cows are commonly lonely on factory farms, too. 60% of Europe’s dairy cows are housed individually for at least the first eight weeks of their lives. This impedes their ability to learn, socialise, and develop good coping mechanisms, as well as restricts their behaviours and ability to move. Adult dairy cows can be tethered throughout their lives, as well.
The grass is greener on the other side: the European Commission must free Europe’s dairy cows and protect their welfare
These problems clearly cannot be allowed to continue or worsen. The EU’s dairy cows desperately need changes to be put in place for their welfare as the European Commission continues to revise the animal welfare laws, including provisions to:
- Enable them to access good-quality pasture more frequently
- House calves socially, so they don’t have to grow up alone
- Improve their indoor environment - so when dairy cows do have to be indoors, they have plenty to do to keep themselves healthy and entertained. A simple measure that could be implemented is the use of mechanical brushes, which can reduce boredom, stress and frustration, as well as improve their hygiene and make them happier
- Fed sufficient amounts of nutritious food
- Tethering of dairy cows should be banned, so no cow has to endure being tied to the same place for months in a row.
Dairy cows deserve to be free, comfortable, healthy, nourished and happy - as does every other living thing. Share this tweet if you agree - dairy cows and all other kept animals need stronger laws for their welfare!