Monday, October 18, 2010

So how can we make things better for dairy cows?

Recently we had a lecture from Dr. Gray on production medicine. Before I explain what production medicine is, let me give you a feel for what Dr. Gray is like. He is probably the member of our food animal faculty with whom I agree the most about food animal welfare, although we certainly don’t see completely eye to eye. He is a hugely amusing lecturer due to his propensity to tell involved stories about something that happened on the job recently, and to write random bits of them on the whiteboard.

This particular whiteboard was such a work of art that I convinced my classmate LPS to photograph half of it, at risk of looking like a nerd in front of the class. You will note that, at one point, Dr. Gray was telling how he had made a plan with a client to meet on a particular date, and he wrote the date on the board. (I was tempted to raise my hand to ask if that would be on the test, but since I had sassed him twice in lecture on the previous day, I decided everyone would be happiest if I kept my mouth shut.) Another friend, LPK, at one point noted that Dr. Gray had erased three milk production curves from the previous day in order to draw a fourth. These were generic milk production curves, i.e., “She makes less, then she makes more, then she makes less.” He could have simply pointed to one of the previous ones. Here, in all its glory, is half of the whiteboard:

(Thanks, LPS! Also: the “countdown to clinics” is maintained by my class, not Dr. Gray. That’s a real count; I will be playing doctor in less than 171 days.)

Dr. Gray explained what production medicine is by telling a story. He was in the truck, driving to lecture a bunch of third year students, when he got a call from the manager of a farm. The owner of the farm had set some financial goals for the farm; he wanted to see them sell 75,000 lbs of milk a day. Since they were currently selling 61,000 lbs, the manager had a problem, and he was calling Dr. Gray to talk about it.

Now, if you are a dairy farmer and you want to sell more milk, you have two ways of doing it. You can milk more cows, or you can get more milk from the cows you already have. Buying or raising more cows involves some overhead costs: if you get too many more, you need to build a new barn. If you try to cram too many into the barns that you already have, they will not do well, and the result will be decreased milk production. This farm manager wanted to convince the cows he had to give him some more milk, and maybe figure out if it was safe to keep a few more cows as well.

There are a lot of factors to take into account in this game. How many cows can you fit? If you have too many, they will all be waiting in line for a long time at the milking parlor. This will eat into their daily quota of lying around chewing their cuds, which will mean poorer quality digestion and less milk. How much milk will each cow produce? This has a lot to do with what she eats. Is she eating as much as you want her to, or is something preventing her from doing so (too many cows at the feed bunk)? Is there a way you can change her diet to provide more energy for her to turn in to milk? If you provide too much energy, her rumen will acidify. At low levels (“sub-clinical rumenal acidosis”) she won’t look sick, but her life expectancy will be shortened, and, you guessed it, she will make less milk. At higher levels, she can have ulcers which eat their way through the wall of her rumen and seed her bloodstream with bacteria. The bacteria make it to her lungs, where they generate clots. And that can kill her in a fairly unpleasant manner.

Production medicine is all about balance. More of a particular factor will give me more milk until it starts giving me less milk. To some extent, the welfare of the cow is in sync with the welfare of the farmer’s bank account. A sick cow doesn’t give as much milk as a healthy one. But to a very large extent, this relationship does not hold true. It often makes more financial sense to sacrifice optimal cow health (accepting sub-clinical rumenal acidosis in many cows in your herd) in the name of income (increased milk production in the remaining cows due to high energy feed). At other times, farmers simply can’t afford veterinary care for every cow that needs it when she might need it.

So do I think dairy farmers are jerks who don’t care about their cows? I absolutely do not. I have a lot of sympathy for their situation, and the ones I have met have been really nice guys who clearly do like their cows. But, to give an example of a population of humans that we all know care about animals — people who love their dogs make bad management choices when they are in bad situations. And dairy farmers are, many of them, in bad situations.

I believe that if they could afford to, more farmers would have smaller farms, with more personal care of their cows, with more cows out on grass. And I believe that almost none of them would skimp on veterinary care if they could afford to give their cows the care they want. But dairy farmers are suffering from very low milk prices right now. They do not have enough income to have the luxury of doing the right thing. They are just trying to get by. They are driven to making bad choices, like packing too many cows into a barn, or sacrificing veterinary care.

Mostly, the small farmers are driven out of business, and the large farmers are taking over, because that makes more financial sense. Dr. Gray reports that a 5,000 cow dairy is the most efficient one. Are large farms worse? Well, if they are more profitable, the cows are likely to get better nutrition and better veterinary care. Other things will be better for them too — the concrete that almost all dairy cows live on will be covered in better bedding, for example.

But in my opinion, the very best farm is the small farm with enough money. On that farm, there are few enough cows that they can be put out on grass sometimes. (Imagine getting 5,000 cows out onto grass, and then onto the next pasture segment a few days later, and then onto the next pasture segment a few days after that, not to mention getting them all to the milking machine at least twice a day.) It is a farm where the farmer can know each of his cows, and notice right away when one of them is not quite right, so that she can receive medical attention promptly. It is a farm where the number of cows is small enough that infectious disease is not a big problem. Are there any farms like this left? Vanishingly few, if any. Dr. Gray opined that the big farm is the farm of the future. The small farm is on its death bed.

I raised my hand and asked Dr. Gray if he thought there was anything veterinarians could to affect this situation, to try to fight against the death of the small farm, or otherwise take steps to change the situation of dairy cows. He replied, “No.” In his opinion, no one really cares all that much about cows. There are some people who do, like a lot of the students in the class, but he suggested that we were the exception, when you look at society as a whole.

The lecture moved on, but I wasn’t done. During the break, I talked to Dr. Gray more, along with Daria, a classmate of mine who has worked on farms and is interested in food animal medicine and herd health. I pointed out that people do care about food animals; they voted “yes” on Prop 2 in California, knowing that it would almost certainly raise food prices. Daria added that consumers do have power to affect farm animal practices; there is almost no milk sold in the Northeast from cows that were given rBST (a synthetic growth hormone), and that is because there was no demand for that milk from consumers.

Dr. Gray protested that neither of those things were useful things to do. Proposition 2 enacted rules with no science behind them and may not actually make things better for animals. And science shows that rBST isn’t bad for cows or people. (I’m not going to get into whether I agree with either of those statements; they are his viewpoint.)

I replied that the point is that consumers have power. What they are lacking is information. I noted that I have always purchased organic milk in grocery stores. Until I started vet school, I was under the misapprehension that this would lead to at least somewhat improved welfare for the cows in question. I now realize that that is not true. But I have always been willing to spend more money to purchase a better life for the cow whose milk I drink. I believe that other people agree with me.

The problem is that people don’t know how to vote with their pocketbooks for a good life for cows. They don’t necessarily know whether or not dairy cows have a good life. (My opinion: it is not by any means torture. But it is unpleasant enough that since taking this class I have stopped buying milk in the grocery store.) So my answer to the question “what can veterinarians do?” is this: veterinarians can educate.

What can you do? Unfortunately, there isn’t a good answer to this question.

  • Buy organic milk at the grocery store? This will probably not make any contribution to dairy cow welfare. Farmers who produce organic milk have an incentive to not treat sick cows, because once a cow has had any antibiotics at all, her milk is no longer considered organic, and will bring a lower price. Regulations about what is organic make no specifications about humane handling of cows.
  • Buy less milk? I certainly think that Americans consume too much milk (mostly in the form of cheese). But buying less milk right now is probably going to have the immediate effect of driving more small farmers out of business, which is not the best thing from a dairy cow’s welfare standpoint.
  • Buy milk from farms with grass-fed cows. This is what I am trying to do, but it is awfully hard to find farms like this! I have failed to find milk from grass-fed cows in my area, but my farmer’s market does provide me with cheese and yogurt made from milk from grass-fed cows. Check out your local farmer’s market. Does your town lack a farmer’s market? Maybe you can start one. The market in my town was started by one guy with a lot of enthusiasm a few years ago. Does your town’s farmer’s market not have milk, cheese, or yogurt from grass-fed cows? Let the organizers know that you’d like it to. Or maybe you can set up a buying co-op. Think out of the box.
This is a hard question and I don’t see a good solution in sight. How can consumers support particular farms when grocery stores provide them with food that has passed through so many middle-men that there is no way of knowing exactly who they are supporting? Hopefully farmer’s markets will continue to flourish and will start providing a usable mechanism for consumers to connect directly with the source of their food, so that they can more easily evaluate the welfare of the animals whose owners they are supporting. For now, I leave you with a photograph of the farm where the cows live who produce the milk in the yogurt and cheese I have been buying lately:

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