A Tail of Two Tails

Image Source: The Herald Business Journal

This piece was orginally written for Dairy Herd Managment.

Like many dairy producers who pride themselves in always looking for ways to improve their farms, our family first started tail docking in the 1980s, when it became increasingly popular as a means to keep both cows and workers clean—or at least cleaner than before.

Over time, however, we compared notes with our colleagues, who had cows that were just as clean and had just as low SSC, even with their tails intact. We looked at the veterinary science, which said tail docking didn’t really help.

We also saw what was happening in other sectors of livestock agriculture, where production practices have been under the microscope for more than a decade. Reading the articles about colony housing for chickens and pigs, we would breathe a sigh of relief, thinking at least we didn’t face the challenges the egg farmers and the pork producers were confronting.

Here in the northwest, as a co-op director, I have seen firsthand the customer-driven challenges in food sourcing and production that eventually make their way to other parts of the country. The prevailing winds of change in food trends seem to move from the West coast to points farther East. In recent years, these changes have meant additional scrutiny of both our environmental and animal care practices in general and, in particular, this issue of tail docking.

As a progressive milk producer, a few years ago we had to reexamine what was the right thing to do in the area of animal care. Fewer and fewer farms were relying on tail docking. The practice was banned seven years ago in California, yet they are still producing plenty of milk. And we have been getting more questions about it from our cooperative’s major customers.

In 2014, we stopped tail docking.

It wasn’t a unanimous or necessarily popular decision in our family, but we decided to make the change (to switch trimming). This has created an interesting laboratory for our farm, as we still have some docked cows in the herd and the younger stock with the full tails. In comparing the milk production, SCC levels and hygiene of the older cows with the newer ones, we found the differences aren’t meaningful.

Our management practices had to evolve, especially because we have sand-bedded stalls. When the manure is flushed from the alleyways, it creates a messy environment for those tails. But we are managing that issue.

My wife and I recently returned from a visit to our ancestral homeland in the Netherlands. Dairy farmers there are thinking hard about the future of the global dairy market and their position in it. They know they have to compete with fellow farmers elsewhere in Europe, those in New Zealand and with us in the U.S.

Dutch dairy farmers stopped tail docking about 20 years ago, knowing it could give them a competitive edge in world markets. We need to do the smart thing, once again, and think about our future as well.

Editor’s note: Jim and his wife, Dolores, farm in Monroe Washington, in a partnership with Jim’s brother Andy, and his wife, Gloria, where they milk 1,200 cows. He serves on the board of the Northwest Dairy Association cooperative.

Tackling Tough Topics: Euthanasia

Krista Stauffer runs a first-generation dairy farm with her husband, Brandon. Stauffer Dairy — located in Washington state — involves roughly 140 Jerseys, Holsteins and Crossbreds. Krista typically blogs about her experiences on the farm on her website, www.thefarmerswifee.com. Here, Krista talks about a tough subject all dairy farmers have to deal with – though they hate to do it: euthanasia.

You wrote about your experience euthanizing a cow for Huffington Post. What made you decide to write so publicly about the subject?

I sent the editor several pre-written blog posts as examples they could use, and he picked that specific one. Not exactly something I would have started out with trying to establish myself as a blogger on their site, but also not a topic I shy away from.

And speaking more generally, why is it important that all farmers discuss this subject?

Simply put: It’s part of farming. We should be talking about all aspects of what we do. It is so easy these days for an activist to film daily routines on the farm – and this task could easily be taken out of proportion. Talking about it, making the public aware that sometimes it needs to be done, the fact that it’s the most humane thing to do for a sick or injured animal and the process in which it is done, can help the conversations we have with consumers. It’s all about transparency.

How did you reach the decision to euthanize one of your animals? What went through your head?

Between my husband and me, we can tell you every animal we have had to put down and why. It is the hardest decision you ever have to make on the farm, yet it is also the easiest. Ending the life of an animal you raised from the time they were born, even if they are being raised to feed this growing population, is not easy. But when you know she’s is sick or injured beyond getting better, or in any way, shape or form she is hurting – your job, your responsibility and your No. 1 concern is ending that suffering.

One time, we had a cow that had an aneurysm. I remember, once we determined what was wrong and that the brain damage was actually causing her pain, it felt like forever before Brandon could retrieve the gun to put her down. But it was only a minute or two. I just sat down next to her, holding her head in my lap, crying and talking to this big, black-and-white cow, waiting for him to get back. It was a horrible experience and one I will never forget, but the choice to put her down was an easy one. No animal deserves to suffer. Ever.

What are the actual, procedural steps in euthanizing a dairy cow?

  1. Determine if euthanization is necessary.
  2. End their suffering immediately by euthanization. On our farm, we use a firearm.
  3. Confirming everything was successful and that the animal has passed.

Why did you choose that particular method to euthanize your cow?

We choose to euthanize with a firearm because it is something we can keep on hand if needed immediately, and we know that we can end the suffering with a single shot.

What is the lesson to be learned from euthanizing an animal?

One can hope that there is something to be learned in how to prevent or treat something differently in the future so that you don’t have to put another animal down. There is usually a lesson to be learned in everything, but sometimes there isn’t and accepting that is hard to do.

How did you explain this situation to your children?

We are open and honest about farm life with our kids. We tell them the facts, but keep it simple. When they ask why we had to put an animal down, we explain it to them. They know that it’s never OK to allow an animal to suffer and that it is our job as farmers to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What is something you wish more consumers understood about euthanasia?

Ending an animal’s life is not something we take lightly. To raise an animal from birth, then have them get sick or injured, thus resulting in you having to put them down, is hard. I have cried over many cows, be it by euthanasia or by leaving the farm to enter the food supply chain. As farmers, we take great pride in the care we provide our cattle while they are on our farm, in our care. We know that they had a good life and that is what keeps us pushing forward.

A Vet Asks: Do Healthy Cows Produce More Milk?

Is rising milk production on today’s modern dairies a good or bad sign for cows? Here’s the perspective from a veterinarian in America’s Dairyland.  John Borzillo has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and is a partner in Central Wisconsin Ag Services in Alma Center, Wisconsin. Pictured is Dr. Borzillo in a milk parlor.

I am a managing partner in a growing veterinary practice in Clark County Wisconsin, which seeks to bring in a new generation of veterinarians as well as a diverse selection of services to the region’s many dairy farms. I want to offer my perspective on the animal health trends I see up close and personal, just about every day of the year.

Some who are concerned about animal welfare – as are we – contend that farmers are raising genetically altered cattle that are no longer healthy, viable animals.  In fact, this is a problem – but not a recent one. It dates back several decades to a time long before I started my own practice.  In other words, this is an old problem that might have made for a more timely discussion in the 1970s.

There was a time in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s that cattle were bred selectively for their “milk traits” more than any other single trait.  This meant that cows were bred based on the likelihood their female calves would grow into adult cows that would produce more milk than their mothers.  Somewhere in this process mistakes were made, in that many other traits were often ignored, such as those relating to udder health, hoof and leg structure, body size, etc.

To their credit, it did not take dairy farmers long to realize animals bred exclusively for milk production began to lack longevity. Longevity is not something to ignore if your livelihood is tied to the overall health and well-being of animals – as most dairy farmers’ lives are indeed tied to theirs. So over the course of the past 30+ years, farmers and veterinarians have worked together, with geneticists and a host of other experts, to reverse the mistakes of the past and bring back other important cow traits.  The end result is ongoing improvement in dairy breeds, which allows farmers to benefit from cows that make more milk, while having solid feet, sturdy legs, strong immune systems and proportional body size.

To imply that this is an ongoing problem or that the dairy community is somehow intentionally creating unhealthy animals, couldn’t be further from the truth.  What’s also a distortion is the notion that producing lots of milk, and being a healthy milking cow, are mutually exclusive. This assumption is not only blatantly wrong, but also represents circumstances not seen on most farms.  I personally work with farms that collectively house thousands of cows, all producing very large amounts of milk, while maintaining remarkable cow welfare.  On one farm I work with, each cow produces over 10 gallons of milk each day, but the dairy cows have never been healthier – something I would love to take credit for.

But I cannot, and must give credit where it is due. Comprehending how health and high production can exist together requires an understanding of complex farming operations.  Without going into all the details, modern farming is accomplished by a team of professionals, made up of animal nutritionists, herd staff, milkers, genetic analysts and veterinarians.  It’s this team of professionals, coupled with the hard work and spirit of the American farmer, that strives every single day to continually improve how we care for the animals to make safe food, using science, technology and innovation.

The reality of our world is that American farmers have a big job on their hands.  Not only are they outnumbered 99 to 1, they must provide food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals for our ever-growing population.  In order to meet demand, farms must grow.  But with growth in size, farms do not lose the principles of farming that are so often associated with those picturesque red barns and green pastures.

Large farms – yes, even those who some may refer to as “factory farms” – are still family-owned.  Being family-owned means their farming practices are governed by traditions which promote a solid culture of animal care.  So, in essence, large farms couple family tradition with the ability to employ skilled, 24-hour staff, capable of meeting all the needs of milking cows.  From birth to adulthood, dairy cattle receive exceptional nutrition, comfortable housing and individual care.

Myth Busting: Polled Genetics

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 edition of Pipeline, a publication from the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Association.

Dehorning is one of those tasks every dairy farmer would love to never have to do again. While it seems like a fairytale concept, more and more dairy farmers are incorporating polled genetics into their herds and making that mythical dream more realistic than ever before.

The truth is, polled genetics are gaining popularity. According to Lindsey Warden, Executive Director of Holstein Genetic Services with Holstein Association USA, 318 registered animals coded as polled in 2005. In 2010, that number grew to 819, and in 2015, the number of polled registered Holsteins tallied to 4,097. “That is just about 1% of our total animals registered, but the growth and interest in polled is clear,” noted Lindsey.

Thanks to the help of dedicated breeders, Artificial Insemination (AI) companies, and breed associations, polled genetics are now available in just about every dairy breed. Currently, Holsteins, Jerseys, and Red and Whites have the largest polled populations.

Several Maryland & Virginia members are embracing polled genetics within their own herds. For member John Burket of Burket Falls Farm in East Freedom, Pennsylvania, his family’s first time using polled animals began by accident in the 1960s.

John’s father, David, had a herd of grade and crossbred Guernseys, but David wanted to transition his herd to registered Holsteins. One fateful purchase of a polled Holstein from Wisconsin launched the Burkets interest in polled genetics. “My dad wasn’t aware that this cow he purchased was polled. She turned out to be the best producer on our farm, and the polled part was secondary,” John said. “She became the foundation cow for all of our polled animals.”

Today, 90 percent of the Burket’s herd is polled. “This is the highest it’s ever been. We have gradually increased the percentage over the years,” John said. The Burkets 87-cow milking herd consists of registered Holsteins and Red and Whites.

“Fortunately for us, our best cows were in our polled family and our highest producing cow was polled. We tried to bring in the best genetics from the horned population to keep pace,” said John, who is a former President of the Pennsylvania Holstein Association and Holstein Association USA Director.

John and his family also raise registered polled bulls. Their bull Burket Falls ABC was the first known polled Holstein to enter the AI leagues and was leased to American Breeders Service.

Fellow member, Jimmy Conner of Floyd, Virginia, has used polled Red and White Holstein AI studs for the past 15 years. He aims to increase the number of polled animals in his herd of 65 Holsteins and Red and Whites.

“I thought I might try the polled genetics because nobody likes to dehorn,” Jimmy said. To start, he purchased a few bulls, but 15 years ago, there was a very limited supply.

“To me, in the last five years, there have been more polled genetics in black and white Holsteins and it’s really taken off. There are now top-of-the-line cows with some new polled bulls,” Jimmy added.

About 10 percent of Jimmy’s herd is polled with 15 percent carrying the polled gene, and 90 percent of AI semen he uses is polled.

Why so many horned cattle?

Despite the growth in polled popularity, horned cattle are still more prevalent today as many producers have opted to breed for production, confirmation, health, and other traits, instead of strictly for polled animals. And while the number of polled AI bulls has increased recently, the total number of sires providing the polled gene is still limited.

“Breeding for polled animals is a slow process,” Jimmy said. “Depending on the animal, you don’t always get the polled results in one generation. When using heterozygous bulls, it takes three generations.”

Despite representing a small population of available genetics, the quality of those bulls is increasing at a dramatic rate. “There are already polled bulls that are of similar genetic merit to some of the elite horned bulls. I suspect in the not-toodistant future, we will have polled animals that are rivaling the horned bulls at the top of the genetic merit lists – the gap between the two categories narrows a little more each year,” said Lindsey.

To producers who are hesitant to try using polled genetics, Jimmy noted “I don’t think they’d have any problem using any of these bulls. They all have good genetics behind them.”

Previously, there was the thought that breeding for polled animals would be a loss in net merit or production, but today it is less of an issue. “I can say today with confidence that if you breed for polled, you won’t lose other traits,” John said.

According to Lindsey, the use of genomics has been helpful to make faster progress in core production and health traits that are important to dairy producers, while still selecting for the polled gene.

The Burket’s animals are proof that polled animals can excel in type and production. More than half of the 150 Burket Falls bred animals that have classified as excellent are polled, with several of their polled animals boasting winnings at national shows.

“I think in time, not only our herd, but the entire Holstein breed will become polled,” John said. “I feel strongly that down the road, horned cattle will be discriminated against. Polled is the dominate trait, so it’s easier to breed for. As producers, we need to be ahead of the eight-ball; we should be breeding for polled animals voluntary, instead of waiting until we have to,” John said.

“We have had polled cows with production in the 25,000 to 30,000-pound range,” Jimmy added. Jimmy envisions that, in five years, his herd will be at least half polled or more.

Consumers, like dairy farmers, would like a world without dehorning. While that fairy tale isn’t a reality yet, dairy farmers like John and Jimmy are working towards making that polled utopia a reality.

The Science Behind the Tail Docking Debate

The FARM Program’s animal care checklist contains dozens of best practices designed to optimize the well-being of the cows at the center of the program. To enhance the credibility of the program, those requirements have to be defensible from an animal science perspective. Otherwise, the program risks losing its value to farmers and dairy customers.

Since FARM was created seven years ago, the program has opposed routine tail docking, precisely because a plausible defense of the practice is not supported by the research into the supposed benefits of docking. As the FARM Program moves toward a phase-out of tail docking in January 2017, we continue to receive inquiries about the evidence that says docking is not in the best interest of dairy cows.

We’re sharing this recent column from Hoard’s Dairyman because it directly addresses the main issues surrounding the continued use of tail docking.  As this paragraph below explains, veterinary medicine must be based on scientific evidence, and the evidence in this matter does not support the value of tail docking.  Thus, FARM cannot support it, either. And for the program to be relevant, credible and effective, the program cannot allow the routine practice of it to continue in the future.

“In veterinary medicine, we advocate “evidence-based medicine” as a means of setting the standards of care. There is a significant weight of scientific evidence that does not support the claims of any benefits to tail docking, and it is this scientific evidence that AABP has used in developing its positions on the practice of tail docking cattle.”

Tail Docking: The Difference a “Switch” Can Make

Jessica Ziehm serves as the Executive Director of the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition, and is wife to one of the partners of Tiashoke Farm, a fourth-generation dairy farm in Buskirk, N.Y., that recently expanded to 1,000 cows. They are members of the Agri-Mark Cooperative and participants in the FARM Program.

We are a dairy farm with tails – the entire tail – switch and all.  But it hasn’t always been this way.  In fact, it was just a couple years ago that we saw the writing on the wall and realized that the contemplation over banning tail docking was an issue that was not going away. And quite frankly, it was a practice that wasn’t going to make us or break us as dairy farmers.  So, I’m here to say that five years after making the conscious decision to leave our tails on our cows, we are still here (knock on wood), in a viable business with a respectable somatic cell count, content employees and fairly clean cows. (They are cows, after all.)  We did it. And it really wasn’t a big deal.  Here’s our story.

Our farm started docking tails in October of 1990. My husband remembers the exact date because it was when my in-laws were on a rare vacation and left their three teenaged sons to run the farm.  They were milking in a 50-cow tie stall barn at the time and took it upon their young selves to initiate the progressive practice of tail docking on a good portion of herd – a practice they had read about in Hoard’s Dairymen and saw firsthand on some 4-H farm tours.  To do so, they banded the cows’ tails and by the time their parents returned, more than half of the cows in the barn had short tails.

After the shock of seeing their newly coifed cows and a lengthy talk around the kitchen table, the action of docking tails made sense to my future in-laws.  Less dirty tails interfering with milkers, less urine soaked switches slapping them in the face on a cold winter morning, and from what they heard but had yet to witness, lower somatic cell counts.  It seemed like a win.

Fast forward to 2011, around the same time the AVMA and the AABP came out and opposed the practice of tail docking, my family took a hard look at the necessity of the practice.  The real benefits of tail docking, the time it takes, public perception and the well-being of our animals, especially our heifers who are on pasture all summer – all of these issues came into play as we debated.   Ultimately, the three brothers decided to stop, but the transition was not cut and dry.

We tried several different methods of trimming switches before finding one that worked for us. We tried using scissors, clippers, and even a cordless drill with a fancy (and expensive) trimmer attachment. None of them worked well, leaving us frustrated with the extra time it took, unsatisfied with the equipment we used and actually caused us to question whether we really wanted to stop docking tails, resulting in us falling off the band wagon a couple of times over the course of a year.  But perseverance paid off and we now feel as though we have a system that we are comfortable with and is effective in allowing our cows to keep their tails, and us to keep our cool.

The method that works for us is just a simple hose cutter that costs under $20. (I think we got ours from our local IBA dealer, but you can also find one like it here). We can easily grab the switch with one hand, and with the other use the hose cutter to trim the switch just below the end of the tailbone. All is takes is one cut and the entire switch is trimmed.  We trim switches once a lactation at the time of freshening, so we aren’t ever trying to do the entire herd all at once.  It’s actually a quicker and more straightforward process than docking tails ever was.

Employee safety is a priority for us, so when we quit docking tails, we started purchasing safety glasses for our workers.  We actually ordered several different styles from Grainger (hereherehere and here) and asked the crew to pick the style they liked best and ordered that style for them. We gave them the choice because we wanted our workers to like them enough to wear the glasses and be comfortable.  The protective eye wear not only protects them from tail switches, but it also shields them from the various soaps and solutions found and used in the milking parlor. The real bonus for us was when we got a gold star during our unannounced OSHA inspection this summer for having safety glasses on all of our guys. (Hey, take the win when you can!)

On the milk side of the equation, we’ve typically maintained a somatic cell count of 180-200,000, even after we started docking tails. As young managers, the three brothers thought there was a direct correlation between tail docking and quality milk.  However, they recognize now that by trimming switches, coupled with other practices on the farm including not over milking the cows, they’ve actually been able to lower their somatic cell count even more, which now runs just under 100,000. Not to mention, the cows are milking out faster too.  The transition to long tails resulted in other gains that we weren’t expecting.

Dirty tails come from dirty stalls.  But lots of other negatives come from dirty stalls too, such as dirty cows, mastitis, high cell counts, and overall, just a negative impact on milk quality. So it is even more important now that our cows have long tails to rake our sand-bedded stalls and scrape our barns during every milking, which is three times a day. We have also learned during this process that by shaping the sand in our stalls, we can help better position our cows in the stall, which helps keep the stalls and the cows cleaner. This results in not only cleaner tails, but a cleaner operation as a whole – which is not a bad image to portray to the public, our milk inspector, our veterinarian and others, including again, that friendly OSHA inspector.

And believe it or not, public perception was another factor we considered.  Perception is reality, unfortunately and we do a handful of tours a year. So, yes, we considered what the public’s image is of dairy farms.  And while, we, as a family, all recognize the benefits not getting slapped in the face with a tail, we also recognize that sole benefit doesn’t outweigh a negative image.  We found that it wasn’t necessary for us to shorten tails to accomplish our larger goals of producing healthy milk and keeping our workers safe.

In fact, during our transition to long tails, we learned a lot about making our farm a better place for not only our cows, but our employees, the quality of our product and our bottom line.  We are proud of our low somatic cell count and improved milking efficiencies. Our cows are just as clean, if not cleaner now with tails. We’ve eliminated one task of docking tails on calves and replaced it with an even easier and quicker task of trimming switches in the parlor, and our workers are safer too.  And lastly and thankfully, we are in compliance with the National FARM program that we support whole heartedly as we work together with our dairy farmer brothers and sisters across the country to assure to the public that we follow the highest standards when it comes to the care of our animals and the quality of our milk.

What a difference a “switch” can make!

Want to learn more about Jessica and her family’s farm? Connect with her on Facebook or via email at nyfarmgirl2@gmail.com.