Confinement: Everyday Life on a NZ Intensive Indoor Dairy Farm
Earlier this year one of our supporters received our email that we were undertaking a dairy investigation and needed everyone's help. She had heard that there were some indoor dairy farms near where she lived so she took it upon her self to find out more. After some research she visited one of the farms, what follows is her account of her visit, her thoughts and feelings.
My visit to an intensive indoor dairy farm in October made me acutely aware that the contemporary dairy industry is taking an ethically retrograde direction, placing economic gain above decent treatment of cows. Using automated systems including computers and robotic milking machines, the farm treats thousands of cows simply as a resource to mine for their milk. The technology and sophisticated systems they use serve only to further depersonalize the lives of the very real cows.
In order to be happy, and therefore truly healthy, these intelligent, social animals need a fuller life than simply existing, day after boring, uncomfortable day, inside a shed.
Indoor farms are taking industrialization to an extreme level. It was awful to witness blatant exploitation and unsympathetic callousness toward the cows.
A cow could decide to eat or to rest, to be alone or in company, to go into the milking compartment and eat the meal there, or have a scratch on an automated scratching post (this latter a very cow-friendly invention!) But the fact of their confinement means that overall the cows have very restricted decision-making opportunities, and this inevitably leads to boredom and depression as they face their unchanging days.
Social bonds are evident in a small herd living on an open farm, but when asked if the cows formed friendships, the farmer said he had not noticed this, so I can only think that crowded and confined conditions interfere with this normal behaviour.
I asked if they pranced and ran, and he said that they did sometimes see one run the length of the shed, and he had no idea why! I can think why - to express exuberance, to run and play!
I saw cows repeatedly going into the milking compartment, only to have the robot reject them when they did not need to be milked. As well as the obvious reason of the tasty reward for going into the milking compartment, it looked like these cows were desperately finding at least something to do. Seeing this reminded me of an animal confined in a zoo repetitively pacing her cage in substitution for normal activity and in desperation for freedom.
In the milking area the cows exhibited some limited social behaviours, such as trying to stop another cow jumping queue, trying to get away with jumping queue or mounting another cow. It is a place for at least something to be 'happening', but how sad is that compared to the activities of which they are inherently capable? Some of these normal cow behaviours are described in the chapter on cows in "The inner world of farm animals: their amazing social, emotional and intellectual capacities" by Amy Hatkoff, 2009.
In the sheds, the cows have no choice but to stand and walk on concrete. There is no escape from the constant contamination of urine and excrement. All animals like to move away from where they have pooed. The automated poo scraper clears the bulk of it away, but not the fact of it.
All the cows were soiled, but there was one particularly soiled cow who only slept on the concrete.
They move cows out of the shed if they don’t conform to the specific living conditions there, so if she didn’t learn to sleep on the matted platform she would have to go.
I had to listen carefully to hear the farmer’s explanation above the constant noise of the machinery and realized that the cows have no reprieve from the noise, no opportunity to listen to the subtle sounds of nature or to experience quiet. The milking robots, the poo scrapers and the feed pushers go day and night.
I was concerned to observe a fault in the robotic milking machine. The machine’s milking bar repetitively pushed the cow’s belly until the farmer identified and repaired the fault. She kicked and tried to move out of the way, but trapped as she was, she became obviously distressed.
I asked what would have happened if no one had been there to fix it, and was told that after seven failed tries the robot releases the cow and automatically calls the manager's cellphone.
I began to realise what serious consequences could result from power failure or another problem in such a highly mechanised system, and wondered how they could possibly prepare adequately for an emergency, given the sheer numbers of cows in their care -- up to 500 cows per shed, and an overall total of approximately 12,000 cows, on 12-14 farms.
I also thought with unease about the recent financial and operational fall of the Crafar family who owned a large number of dairy farms. The media and the courts of law have documented some of the examples of Crafar’s failure to care for the animals when things went wrong. The cows and calves who experienced intense suffering, many even to the death, were innocent victims of fate. Or were they? Is the setting up of farming systems that are unsustainable when the owner falls into strife not an animal welfare crisis in waiting? No system is exempt from such risk, and no one has the right to take down dozens or hundreds of animals when their own greed turns and strikes them a blow.
Highly mechanized farms are putting themselves forward as leaders in an extreme industrialization movement in dairying, but the bar they are measuring against is an economic one, and this bar, like the one in the robotic milker, is repetitively hitting the poor cow. Ultimately, the ‘seven-times-and-you’re-out’ strike does not apply – cows on these farms have a life sentence of slavery and confinement.
The industry would have the cruelty inherent in dairying normalized and accepted. But one has only to have eyes and ears to know what a cow thinks and feels about having her calf taken away – her heart is seared with horror. The farmer forcibly takes her calf after birth, a trauma of the highest magnitude for a mother and baby. He then chooses whether to raise or slaughter the infant. Dairying is terror - in our own back yard.
The industry is obsessed with increasing profit, clearing land to maximise 'productive pasture' and dramatically increasing herd sizes. The attitude that the poor cow is simply a ‘stock unit’ severely diminishes her quality of life. Industrialised dairying is unwarranted corruption of the original husbandry ethic. And imposing the abject misery of confinement to increase profit is appalling inhumanity.
Scientific evidence now confirms what was previously known through common sense – that cows have intelligence, feel emotions, feel pain, and are self-aware -- that they are, in fact, quite similar to humans. It is shameful that farmers are not responding to this evidence. When is exploitation and cruelty acceptable? Fonterra and modern dairy farmers would say for economic gain. I say never. They say they are supporting the country. I say economic support based on cruelty is unacceptable. It is disgusting to see how low some people will go for the export dollar. It will not wash with the consuming public who are now becoming aware of the animal cruelty issues as well as the serious health risks associated with factory farming.
So in conclusion, I make a simple plea, on behalf of the cows and those who speak for them:
End dairy conversions and phase out industrialised dairy farming.
Stop breeding ever more cows, building ever more sheds, and fitting them out with expensive machinery, because this investment then becomes an excuse for continuing dairy cow exploitation.
Encourage and use foods that are ethical, sustainable and not based on animal exploitation.
Business opportunities in the movement toward sustainability can provide local employment and an abundance of plant food for the local and export markets, at the same time as protecting animals and the environment.
 I am not 100% sure of these figures – I was incredulous that they were so high and found it hard to recall them precisely when writing up my notes
 In the High Court Allan Crafar likened his bank to “a dog being dragged along on the end of a chain”, and said that dealing with them was “like rearing a tiger- they are always going to kill you in the end”. His choice of language unwittingly reveals his violent attitude to animals and only adds insult to injury for the animals who suffered under his malpractice.
 “Agricultural intensification over the past 10 years has lead to the highest rate of native vegetation loss since European colonization… [and] moves to intensive farming practices over the past decade had dramatically wiped out native plants and animals” Landcare Research 2010