Human beings are the only mammals that drink milk after the lactation period. This fact does not mean much in itself -there are no other mammals that eat paella or play Mario Kart on the Nintendo-, but our dairy stubbornness forces us to extract it, almost always, from cows. How are these animals treated in the process? Many critical voices remind us of the cruelty of separating cows from their calves shortly after they are born, denouncing painful practices such as dehorning, or underlining the long time that animals spend crowded together inside stables. From the industry they defend their production methods, and there are brands that wear “animal welfare” seals. Can we have a coffee with cow’s milk with a clear conscience? Or are we complicit in animal abuse?
The average size of Spanish farms was 64 milking cows in 2020, 24% more than in 2016, when the average was 51 copies, according to A study of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. This progressive increase in the size of the farms is part of a dominant production system in which these animals are not free in immense green meadows. like Heidi’s: “There are no extensive milk farms in Spain. None. What there may be are semi-extensive farms, in which they go out to graze for a while but are not loose in the bush, among other things because they have to be milked twice a day,” he explains. Pol Llonchresearcher in animal welfare at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
Requirements for the cow to be happy
The Welfare Quality project, with European funding and which took place between 2004 and 2009, brought together more than 40 institutions from 17 countries to investigate animal welfare. One of the participants was Antonio Velardehead of the program that studies this topic at the Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology (YoRTA), which states that the conclusion reached was that this is a multidimensional concept that brings together four basic principles that guarantee it: good nutrition, good accommodation, good health and appropriate behavior.
“Good nutrition, that is, that they do not go hungry, that they have access to food and water both in quantity and quality. When we talk about accommodation, we refer to thermal comfort and rest or that they can move properly. Regarding health, that they do not have diseases, lameness or injuries, and then, that the behavior is specific to each species”, Velarde comments in general terms.
yesand all the cattle raising milkmaid is intensive, There is not animal welfare?
In this dairy issue, whether animals have good living conditions depends on the point of view from which you look. Jordi Gispert, head of communication for the Association for the Defense of Animal Rights (ADDA), is clear: “We must differentiate very well between extensive livestock, which respects biological rhythms, and industrial farms, which are aberrant for the cows and the natural environment.”
In his opinion, animal welfare is a concept that serves as “greenwashing” for many farms: “How can you talk about it when a cow is confined in two square meters being such a large mammal, forced to artificial insemination, to be seen as a mere product without even access to pasture on many occasions, fed with manufactured products, without mobility and without following its natural rhythm of life?” asks Gispert, who draws a scenario very similar to the one that appears in the documentary Cowby filmmaker Andrea Arnold.
In contrast, the researcher Pol Llonch affirms that animal welfare is compatible with intensive dairy production: “It is true that this system entails some challenges such as managing painful processes or limiting some natural behaviors such as grazing. But it is also true that there are other aspects that, in general, improve the quality of life if we compare them with extensive cattle.” Though a priori The latter sounds contradictory, Pol gives as an example the control of the health of these cows, “which is very rigorous, constant and detailed, so it is known quickly if they have any problem and this can be done in time”. “They are also provided with adequate food according to their needs, which they do not have in extensive or semi-wild conditions,” adds this scientist.
The nv numberhere of youno livestock influences?
“There cannot be 8,000 animals in ships without this being detrimental to them and to public health. Absolutely impossible. They can make a thousand excuses, but it is not possible”, asserts Jordi Gispert from ADDA. In Spain, in 2018 there were 2,602 farms with more than 126 cows, 19% of the total, of which 115 had more than 626 heads of dairy cattle, according to a report of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
“For other issues, it may have something to do with it, but welfare conditions may exist in both a large and a small one,” says Antonio Velarde, who adds: “You can have better conditions in a brand-new farm, with trained personnel , sprinkler systems and robots so that the cows are milked whenever they want, than in a smaller and older one, where the necessary investment has not been made and the farmer is not trained”.
“Although it is true that there are other challenges, such as the environment, with the concentration of manure, which should be taken into account,” says Pol Llonch. This is one of the most common criticisms made of macro farms: the pollution that their operation entails. The Valle de Odieta cooperative has in El Caparroso (Navarra) one of the largest dairy farms in Spain, with 4,700 milking cows, and a project still in the making in Noviercas (Soria) that would be the largest in Europe, with 23,000 heads. This has caused environmental organizations such as greenpeace oppose these installations for their environmental impactalthough from the Navarre entity they assure that they comply with the regulations and that they even have a biogas plant to minimize the emission of gases.
Cows without horns, without pups and pregnant
Returning to animal welfare, in milk production there are three practices that generate a lot of controversy: dehorning or topping, separation of the mother and her calf, and the number of pregnancies. Each one makes sense within the intensive milk production system, although this does not prevent organizations from pointing out that they are expendable and harmful to cattle.
“The three are basic practices of abuse. We are not aware of what cutting the horns entails and the physical and behavioral problems that it causes throughout their lives”, says Jordi Gispert. “Dehorning -or lopping, if the germinal button is removed- can be painful for the animal at the time, but later it is beneficial because the cow that has horns, if it is stabled in a pen, it is much more likely that they will serve to harm other animals”, says Pol Llonch.
Also, in ADDA they think that the calf-mother separation is unnatural: “They take it away shortly after giving birth when there is a lactation period in the case of calves of many months. They suffer total isolation that causes them absolute stress”, declares their head of communication. The researcher Pol Llonch sees it differently: “Two things happen here: if the calf is kept with the cow, it keeps the milk that the farmer would sell, therefore the production would be lower; and on the other hand, it is not proven that a later separation is better for well-being”.
And as for the last of the practices mentioned, the UAB researcher points out that, in general, there is an average of between two and a half and three pregnancies per cow; a higher figure in extensive livestock, since it is related to meat production, and there the animals live longer.
Are seals and certifications the solution?
Based on the conclusions and protocols arising from the already mentioned Welfare Quality project and later ones such as Awin, the Basque Institute for Agricultural Research and Development (NEIKER) and IRTA presented the animal welfare seal in 2019 Welfair, which today is certified by companies such as AENOR. Antonio Velarde, from IRTA, explains that the evaluation system for granting it establishes criteria that look at the animal: “In the end, well-being is not the facility or the management, but rather the cow or the pig, and they are the ones who They tell you if they’re okay or not.” Thus, according to Velarde, this certificate is based on parameters such as the time it takes for an animal to lie down, “which is important because it tells you if it is comfortable or not in the cubicles where it rests”, if it feels hot or cold or panting, if it has lameness or injuries or the degree of dirt, for example.
For a farm to be certified, it must comply with current legislation and with the established criteria. If you want to wear the Welfair seal, in addition to that, the milk packaging industry must prove the origin of the product. A distinction with which organizations such as the OCUwho criticizes that aspects such as “facilities, density or temperature” are not observed, or Jordi Gispert himself, who understands “that in the end the certifiers want to do business, and therefore with a few minimums they will give them the seal so that companies pay them.
Veterinary researcher Pol Llonch believes that this seal and others like it represent an increase in the welfare requirements of farms, although “there are things that escape this certification with aspects that are not taken into account or due to its very nature, since an evaluation is done every year”. For the Welfair award, the auditor assesses whether the criteria are met for an average of seven hours; in the case of farms that already have it, it is reviewed annually for the renewal or revocation of the certificate.
“The pending issue is to get systems that allow a more continuous control and that are not just one day nothing more. In the end, the dairy sector is the one in which animal welfare has the greatest impact on productivity”, concludes Pol Llonch. “The idea is for it to be a living protocol, and when new measures are identified and developed, they can be implemented,” says Antonio Velarde, one of the scientists participating in a project in which public entities set the criteria that are then verified by private companies. The cows, meanwhile, will continue to give milk so you can add it to your morning coffee.
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