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.
"I believe consumers trust and respect that dairy producers will continue to provide exceptional care for their animals,” Lefebvre adds. "I hope government won't cave in to organizations like HSUS, which is focused on a vegan agenda.”
While the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation (OFBF) doesn't have a formal position on tail docking, it does "support properly researched, veterinarian-approved and industry-tested poultry and livestock practices,” says David White, senior director of issues management.
OFBF and White were active in last fall's successful grassroots campaign to "keep Ohioans in charge of Ohio farms” through a ballot initiative known as Issue 2. Voters approved the measure, which created a 13-member state Livestock Care Standards Board. Under it, a cross-section of scientists, farm representatives and consumers will set the standards for overall animal health. The board, chaired by the director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, will determine whether practices like tail docking are acceptable.
The Ohio farm industry's proactive legislative efforts offer an example for how livestock sectors in other states can remain in charge of their management practices, White says. He urges dairy producers and industry representatives to "look at the science of management practices but also at what consumers are willing to accept.”
If tail docking is to remain optional, it's important to put proper procedures in place, says Marcia Endres, a veterinarian with the University of Minnesota's Department of Animal Science. "Producers should learn, or continue to use, appropriate tail-docking techniques that cause the least pain and stress for the animal,” she says.
SCIENCE SAYS ‘NO'
The reason some veterinary groups are advising against tail docking? They say the science doesn't support the practice.
"The American Association of Bovine Practitioners [AABP] opposes routine tail docking of cattle,” says Gatz Riddell, a veterinarian and AABP's executive vice president. "Current scientific literature indicates that routine tail docking provides no benefit to the animal. Most people have concluded that it's not a necessary part of udder health and milk quality programs on dairies.”
At the University of California, Cassandra Tucker points to research that shows tail docking does not improve cow cleanliness. "The scientific study of tail docking has found that docked cows are not any cleaner or healthier, and have more flies on their legs and udders, than undocked cows,” says Tucker, an assistant professor who specializes in animal welfare.
AABP's lack of support for tail docking doesn't make the veterinary organization an ally of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Riddell says. In late 2009, HSUS approached AABP about partnering on federal legislation to ban bovine tail docking. AABP declined, Riddell says, and not only because it believes voluntary adoption of humane animal care is the best approach.
"If we thought that HSUS' main agenda truly promoted animal well-being, we might have considered it,” Riddell says. "But their main objective is to remove large animal agriculture from the U.S. on the grounds that large operations by definition are inhumane. We respectfully and completely disagree with that premise.”
How popular is tail docking?
What the California Dairy Quality Assurance program Says About Tail-Docking
New York Assembly Member Rosenthal Introduces Bill Restricting Cruelty Against Cattle
American Veterinary Medical Association backgrounder on dairy cow tail-docking
NMPF's National Dairy Farm Program