WOOSTER, Ohio — After experiencing one of the worst years for milk prices, dairy farmers across the nation were served yet another forceful blow just a few weeks into the new year.
On Jan. 26, ABC and some of the biggest names in animal rights groups revealed undercover videos showing dairy cattle being dehorned, tails being docked, some suffering from infections and one cow that was struck with a wrench.
The videos, which aired on ABC World News and ABC Nightline, were supplied by Mercy for Animals and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, with endorsements by a host of other activist organizations, including Humane Society of The United States.
The videos were taken at New York’s largest dairy — the 5,000-cow Willet Dairy — located in Cayuga County. But footage there was used to represent all of the dairy industry, turning the popular marketing phrase “Got milk?” into a question of, “Got Ethics?”
Is dairy ethical?
“We know that the tapes provided were made by animal rights groups who have a very partisan objective: ending animal food production,” said Chris Galen, spokesperson for National Milk Producers Federation.
Galen was among a select few who were included in ABC’s investigation into dairy cow treatment. Some of his comments about the country’s low somatic cell count, and the overall care most dairymen give to their cows were not included in the segment.
Galen agreed some actions on the video were not acceptable, like striking a cow with a wrench. He and National Milk also support using anesthetic when tail docking or electric dehorning is performed. Anesthetic apparently was not used in the videos aired.
However, National Milk does not condemn tail docking, because some dairymen find it a useful way of preventing disease around a cow’s udder, and accessing a cow’s udder without being struck by her tail.
National Milk addresses these and other animal care concerns in its National Dairy Farm Program — an initiative to ensure dairy cows are cared for. The program is accessible at www.nationaldairyfarm.com, where a very different video shows how best practices lead to animal safety, comfort and well-being, and a healthy product for consumers.
Dairymen have every reason to care for their animals, because “she (the cow) is their source of income,” said Leah Miller, director of Small Farm Institute in Ohio — an organization dedicated to small family farms and landowners.
“You don’t (mistreat) the goose that lays the golden egg,” she said, likening the same analogy to cattle.
Miller said the ag community in most places is still a strong community, but some animal rights groups are giving it a test. In November, Ohio voters approved landmark legislation to form the Livestock Care Standards Board.
Galen said more national and federal policies from activist organizations are likely to come, and some will not be satisfied, no matter the reform a state or farm group proposes.
“They (activists) are empowered and they have more money,” he said. “I think that it’s going to continue. The ability of animal rights groups to infiltrate farming groups is not going to change.”
Scott Higgins, CEO of Ohio Dairy Producers Association, said it’s unfortunate the videos were used to reflect the whole industry, “when there’s so many of our farmers who do it right, and would welcome consumers to stop in.”
He and ODPA are forming a team of dairy experts to advise the yet-to-be-formed Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board, of practices that merit consumer confidence.
“As these things (activist videos) get exposed, our agriculture community steps up and says ‘that’s not the way we all do it,'” Higgins said. “Ohio’s dairy is going to be proactive in this.”
Media can help or hurt
Beth Meyer, communications director for American Dairy Association, said easy access to media like Twitter, Facebook, and even cell phone cameras and videos all make it easy for the dairy industry to be attacked.
One of the best things dairymen can do is be sure their practices are sound and up to standard.
But farmers must share their message of what they do, and why, because media also is a tool to spotlight the positive practices in their industry.
“Now, more than ever, we need to be open and we need to be out talking to people,” she said.
Stacey Stevens, director of nutrition and industry affairs for Dairy Management Inc., said ABC was put in touch with a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, where good dairy ethics were practiced.
“But not one shot of it was used” by ABC, she said.