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Does Tail Docking Need to Go?

April 16, 2010
By: Sara Schafer, Farm Journal Media Business and Crops Editor

Tail docking of dairy cows was already an uncommon and diminishing practice in California when a state legislator introduced a bill in February 2009 to ban the practice.

By November, both legislative houses had approved the bill and it had become law. Today, docking a cow's tail except in an emergency is a misdemeanor in California.

Don't be surprised if efforts to ban bovine tail docking appear in your state too, say dairy professionals involved in animal welfare. The practice of amputating a cow's tail could produce a showdown between animal activists, who believe tail docking is cruel and unnecessary, and dairy producers, who maintain that they know what's best for their animals. Adding to the controversy is a growing number of veterinary experts who say the science doesn't support tail docking.

"Getting tail docking banned in California gives animal welfare activist groups the precedent to try to get it prohibited in other states,” says Kathy Finnerty, program manager with the New York State Cattle Health Assurance Program.

"The implications of California's measure aren't overtly clear, but we do know that the animal rights community, particularly the Humane Society of the United States [HSUS], is focused on this issue and will continue to press for efforts, either at the state or federal level, to restrict or ban the practice,” says Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF).

In fact, it's already happening. In January, a member of the New York State Assembly introduced a bill to prohibit bovine tail docking after watching a video by Mercy For Animals. Later, the footage appeared on an ABC "Nightline” episode depicting animal cruelty on farms. Last year, a bill surfaced in Illinois to ban bovine tail docking. Although the bill died, the issue has not.

Encouraged by the 2009 success of California's Proposition 2, which saw voters approve stricter animal housing standards, animal rights acti-vists are urging supporters in other major dairy states to follow Sacramento's example. Leading the way is HSUS, which supported the California bill. HSUS calls the practice of tail docking "a common and cruel mutilation of dairy cows.”

Docking supporters say the practice prevents tails from splashing manure and urine onto cows' udders. That helps improve cow cleanliness, lessen the incidence of mastitis and boost milk quality.

But some veterinary groups disagree (see sidebar). They include the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners and the California Dairy Quality Assurance Program. Canada's National Farm Animal Care Council also opposes tail docking, as do New Zealand and several European nations.

NMPF does not have a policy on tail docking, says Galen. But its new National Dairy FARM Program on animal care does not recommend it.

The Minnesota Milk Producers Association, however, has a different position.

"We think it's important that farmers have that option available if they believe it's best for their cows and their management systems,” says Bob Lefebvre, executive director of the group, which represents about half of Minnesota's 4,500 dairy producers.

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