Writing and Photography by: Heather Clemenceau
Art by: Twyla Francois Art
2015 is the 50th anniversary of the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, and in June, 14 dairy farms opened their doors to the non-farming public. An Open House was held on June 27, 2015 at the Milky Wave dairy farm in the pastoral Mennonite community of Floradale, Ontario. Today there are hundreds of visitors, including many Mennonite families, sampling chocolate milk and ice cream.
This barn is probably one of the “jewels in the crown” of the DFO, who are the marketing representation for Ontario’s approximately 3,900 dairies. Designed to promote the excellence of milk and the humanity of it all, these tours seem like something of a fairy tale relative to the harsh reality documented during investigations by Mercy for Animals and other groups. Today’s visit is a good example of the dairy industry regrouping and rebranding for its very survival.
Most fairy tales began a long time ago and didn’t really begin with the kingdom the public sees on this visit. This 750 acre facility produces, aside from milk, mostly hay, soy, wheat and corn as feedstuffs for the cows. The Schuurmans family recently purchased this farm, after Henk Schuurmans functioned as the herd manager on the 210-cow dairy operation for 25 years (there are another 200+ cows/heifers/calves of various ages living on the farm). Prior to its expansion, the farm operated with 65 cows in a tie-stall barn. Schuurmans also helped manage reconstruction after a devastating fire destroyed the barn (and presumably the cows) in 1997.
Brambell’s Five Freedoms
- Freedom from discomfort
- Freedom from pain, injury, or disease
- Freedom to express (most) normal behaviours
- Freedom from fear and distress
- Freedom from hunger or thirst
Farming practices in Canada have changed dramatically over the last 50 years. No longer do most cows live outside for even part of their day, as in those old dutch paintings of farms in the 1800s. The number of small family farms has significantly declined, and larger intensive farms have become the norm. Milky Wave is considered to be a “small” operation and it certainly is relative to larger farms such as Chilliwack Cattle Sales, the subject of a Mercy For Animals investigation. Despite the size of this farm, the cows do not have any access to pasture and they live their entire lives in various barns on the property according to their size, maturity, and reproduction/lactation status. Despite the scale, Milky Wave still fits the definition of a factory farm – utilizing modern machinery, biotechnology, automation, and standardization, all very efficiently. It operates with a minimum of staff and a minimum of interaction with the cows. New housing systems have resulted new animal welfare challenges, including lack of access to pasture, confinement, crowding, and the behavioural issues that result.
Every aspect of the operation seen here on this day appears to be consistent with current Codes of Practice for dairy cows (recommended, but not obligatory in Ontario). Facilities like Milky Wave, which have increased mechanization and confinement in order to reduce labour costs, have addressed some animal health issues, while creating other new health and behavioural issues.
General commentary on the farm and its operations (via direct observation and confirmation from volunteers):
- Milky Wave farm is a closed system – all cows are born on the farm
- There are no bulls on this farm – AI is the only method used to make more cows as it poses less risk to employees who are not used to handling bulls.
- The cows can move about the barns, moving from eating areas to raised platforms where they can doze or sleep, but density is fairly high
- One humane improvement is that tails are not docked
- All cows and calves are “head shy” – they move away when people approach
- No sores visible on the cows – hocks seemed to be free of scrapes, which are a common source of infection in cattle
- The production cows wear pedometers on their rear legs below the hocks, which record their movements, activity levels, production of milk, treatments and whether they are in heat according to algorithms in the software. Cows who are not ambulatory relative to the baselines/medians in the software are checked to make sure they are not ill.
- Antibiotics are not used as preventatives, but only in cases of actual bacterial infection – this is course is due to the monitoring of drug withdrawal times and a cow on antibiotics is a cow whose milk will be destroyed for a predetermined period of time after treatment.
- Young calves did not socially interact – their group housing barn was quite dark – they lie on their “mattresses” and don’t move about while I am there watching. They don’t seem to have any enrichment at all and aren’t interested in their surroundings. Their lives appear to be devoid of stimulation.
- Only form of enrichment appeared to be the cow-activated body brushes which the cows often line up to use.
- All cows appeared to have a body condition score of 2-3 based on the appearance of fat around the “hooks and pins” of their hip bones. This is considered to be a healthy weight for dairy cows.
- Painful procedures are still a cause of concern for the welfare of dairy cattle. All heifers are de-horned at a young age in order to prevent injury to each other or to people later in life. Using a procedure called “disbudding,” the small emerging horn is usually prevented from growing by burning the tissue with a hot iron or a caustic chemical paste.
- The public is not allowed into the milking parlour for hygienic reasons, and the presence of many strange people milling about is considered to be a stressor for cows.
- The barn has concrete floors, which can cause lameness in cows over time
- In Canada all dairy animals (alive or dead) are identified by the National Livestock Identification for Dairy (NLID) ear tags are required by Canadian law. Branding is not commonly practiced in the dairy industry.
- Large fans keep air circulating in the two larger, high-ceilinged barns. The barns seem to be free of flying pests.
- At the end of their production lives, the cows are picked up and sent directly to slaughter, after living only a fraction of their lifespan.
- The youngest calves are housed in hutches in a separate barn – there are less than 10 tiny calves here today. The volunteers explain to the visitors that they must be removed from their mothers within 48 hours otherwise “the mother and baby will bond,” as if this is something that should be avoided at all costs. But the dairy industry has no use for a being who intends to drink the milk that they intend to use for profit.
- The feed barn is set up to show visitors the various foodstuffs that go into feeding all the cows. Along with hay, corn silage, ground corn, extruded/pelleted feeds and mineral supplements, the feed is supplemented with powdered palm oil, which of course comes with its own separate issues with respect to habitat destruction. The calves are of course fed a milk substitute.
- A mechanized system removes manure from most barns – like a giant windshield wiper, it channels manure and urine into a crevice in the floor, which is removed out to the manure holding tank via a system of conveyors. The floor is mostly free of manure – the slurry tank outside for storage is massive.
The Canadian Federal and Provincial Governments have ensured that milk remains institutionalized in the Canadian diet by introducing a wide range of programs of grants, loans and other funding options for Canadian Farmers and Agri-Business. Through this system of grants, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs offers millions to dairy and other agricultural producers, including the Canadian Dairy Commission’s Matching Investment Fund (MIF), which is a three-year, $6 million fund designed to encourage growth and innovation in the manufacture and use of Canadian dairy products and ingredients. In the last three years alone, the dairy/cattle industry has benefited from numerous grant programs that we all pay for, whether there is reasonable humane treatment of cows or not:
- Dairy Farmers of Canada – 28/05/2014 – $72,500
- Dairy Farmers of Canada – 14/05/2014 – $528,923
- Dairy Farmers of Canada – 06/03/2014 – $416,000
- Dairy Farmers of Canada – 24/12/2013 – $10,500,000
- Cook’s Dairy Farm Limited – 09/01/2013 – $94,434
- Chieftain Dairy Farms Ltd – 19/11/2012 – $42,602
- Dairy Farmers of Canada – 09/07/2012 – $351,086
- Canadian Livestock Genetics Association – 10/08/2012 – $1,086,470
- Canadian Dairy Network – 06/07/2012 – $54,000
- Canadian Cattlemen’s Association – 24/08/2012 – $5,138,327
- Canadian Cattle Identification Agency – 18/09/2012 – $500,000
- Western Feedlots Ltd. – 23/05/2012 – $51,720
- Western Feedlots Ltd. – 23/05/2012 – $31,200
- Western Feedlots Ltd. – 22/06/2012 – $34,800
One doesn’t need to be operating on a “vegan agenda” to object to the government funding an industry in the name of public health though, especially when the health benefits of dairy products are debateable. It’s also infuriating to imagine that an industry such as Chilliwack Cattle Sales near Vancouver, which milks an astonishing 3,500 cows at its main premises, might directly or indirectly benefit from a grant to improve its image as the most notorious dairy farm in Canada. All the milk moustaches in advertising history couldn’t compensate for the torture of helpless Holsteins by unskilled, teenaged workers who ran wild in CCS. Open houses such as those at Milky Wave and a few other farms aren’t the only way the livestock industry struggles to improve its image – Alberta Farm Animal Care committed $178,500 to help the industry overcome the “negative, inaccurate and falsified blows to animal agriculture.” The best way to prevent horrific truths from being seen by the public is to take steps to make sure that they don’t happen in the first place…
Milk has become knit into our dietary culture, particularly at breakfast, where we stubbornly adhere to the decades-old tradition of drenching cereal in milk. Whether you believe that dairy is healthy or not, we have bought into false notions that milk is deserving of its own food group, overlooking its sugar (lactose), calories and cholesterol. And the fact that dairy has its own food group with milk having special status as a calcium source makes as much sense as sunflower seeds being a food group because they’re high in magnesium.
Despite some improvements in animal welfare, there remain many problems with dairy both from a nutritional standpoint and from an animal rights standpoint. Regardless of whether or not casein is carcinogenic or whether 60 year-olds with fragile bones can benefit by drinking milk, is it not time that adults weaned themselves off the fairytale version of farming and began to judge it by the standards by which we judge other industries?