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Here's the short story on cow tails

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A line of Holsteins at the Foremost Dairy in Columbia, Mo. The cows' tails easily get dirty. (Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media)
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Reporter, KBIA

Abbie Fentress Swanson reported for Harvest Public Media in Columbia, Mo., while based at KBIA.

Many people who haven’t stepped foot on a dairy might think milking a cow is a sort of Emersonian back-to-the land moment, where a milker bonds with his or her cow while communing with nature. Just milk her for a while and voilà: fresh, creamy milk. But the truth is, milking can be a very dirty job.

“I have been hit many, many times right in the face by a tail with manure,” said Matt Waldron, who teaches dairy nutrition and health at the University of Missouri. Standing in his office with its life-sized cardboard cut-out of a black and white Holstein, it’s no surprise he’s worked on dairies most of his life. Or that he’s gotten whacked in the face with a wet, smelly cow tail more times than he can count.

“All of a sudden you go to step out of the stall and there she just whacks it right completely across your face, in your mouth,” Waldron said. “You were talking to another, another person over on the other side of the barn at the same time when she hits you in the mouth. And so you’ve got a mouth full of feces and urine.”

Waldron said if a cow has a tail, it’s going to happen. But that’s a big “if” these days because many dairy producers cut off – or dock – their cows’ tails.

Cow tail docking as a practice was introduced in the New Zealand dairy industry in the early 1900s . Cow tails were thought to be the cause of an outbreak of leptospirosis among milkers, which is a disease caused by bacteria found in animal urine. Dairy producers in the U.S. got in on the practice in part because they believed docking also led to cleaner cows. But recent studies show there’s no scientific proof that docking keeps cows healthier or that it stops the spread of disease.

Workers today also have less contact with cows in modern milking parlors – like parlors in the rotary or herringbone style – so getting hit in the face with a cowtail is also less of a concern, Waldron said.

“The workers stand down in a recessed pit about three feet lower than the cows’ feet and so the tail is away from the workers’ face,” he said. “There’s actually typically a shield there so that also the cow can’t defecate or urinate on the worker who is milking the cow.”

Source: Dairy 2007 report, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Now just 51 percent of the dairies in the U.S. dock their cows’ tails, according to the latest study on the subject done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A higher percentage of cows on medium-sized dairies, which have herds of between 100 and 499 cows, have docked tails when compared with small or large operations. Docking is also more common on the East Coast and in the Midwest than in the western part of the U.S.

Missouri’s largest dairy, Heartland Creamery, docks its 3,900 milking cows’ tails down to short little stubs, according to Joe Vien, the dairy’s manager.

“That is the standard operating procedure -- to dock the tails at 24 months of age,” he said.

Heartland doesn’t dock the tails until the cows are ready to be milked. They first cut the lower quarters of the tails off and then apply tight rubber rings to the new ends of the tails to cut off blood circulation. Veterinarians says this is the most common way of docking in the industry these days, although in the past producers used to band the tails first and then wait for the tail to fall off.

“I do not believe that it is more than getting a piercing. That is my opinion,” Vien said. “It’s fast and quick. It’s not a drawn-out process that we take the tails off. It’s as quick and as painless as we can possibly do it for them.”

Vien said docking helps keep the dairy’s cows from getting mastitis, which is an udder infection caused by bacteria that can keep cows from producing milk. In the worst case, cows can even die from the disease.

“We care about these cattle. They are our babies,” Vien said. “I have 9,000 babies here. We milk about 3,900 cows and we have about 9,000 total stock … We treat these cows with the utmost respect. We want them to live well and do the best that they can do.”

Heartland Creamery is a business though, and Vien said getting through the worst drought in decades is more of a concern for him than whether or not to dock his cows’ tails.

“We need to worry about how to feed all of these people that don’t have food,” he said. “Maybe we should figure out how to milk more cows and not worry about docking their tails.”

But public opinion may hold the trump card here. Noted animal advocate Temple Grandin, who teaches animal science at Colorado State University, was one of the writers of a report published in the Journal of Dairy Science in 2008 that looked at cow tail docking at 113 dairies in the U.S.

“A lot of people that want to dock tails just want to do it for the convenience of the milkers,” she said. “They don’t want to get slimed by tails.”

Grandin said she’s seen more flies on cows with docked tails because they don’t have tails to flick them off. Many dairies have also given up on tours because they’re tired of explaining to visitors why the cows look funny.

“I think in ag[riculture] we have to look at everything we do and go, ‘[How] would you explain this to the wedding guests from New York or Chicago?’” she said. “And you know, you see a cow out there covered with flies wiggling a nubbin. I don’t think that’s something we want to show the wedding guests.”

Bearing in mind public opinion is one of the reasons that the National Milk Producers Federation voted this summer to take a stand against docking. Like Grandin, the industry trade group says there’s no science behind the benefits to docking and so it’s recommending producers phase out the routine use of the practice by 2022.

“The 10-year window is one where it allows a transition,” said Chris Galen, the federation’s senior vice president of communications. “I think that there was some apprehension on the part of our members that this would be done suddenly and so it’s something that by giving a decade you allow people to transition their management styles. Some of them may have milking parlors or physical equipment that’s based on the anatomy of the cow being what it is through tail docking.”

For opponents of docking though, 10 years is way too long. The Humane Society of the United States, for example, says the practice causes cows unnecessary pain and it should be stopped immediately.

“We’re not talking about a practice that requires depreciation of equipment,” said Paul Shapiro, the group’s vice president of its farm animal protection division. “We’re not talking about changing many other husbandry practices associated with it. We’re talking about simply stopping cutting the tails off of these animals who need their tails.”

But there is an alternative to cowtail docking – and it’s being done at the Foremost Dairy Center in Columbia, Mo.

Scott Poock, veterinarian for the University of Missouri Extension, demonstrates an alternative to cow tail docking at Foremost Dairy: trimming the switch off of a cow's tail.  (Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media)

Fall is a busy time at the University of Missouri-owned dairy because that’s the time of year when veterinarian Scott Poock trims the switches off the tails of the dairy’s 425 cows. In his blue jumpsuit, rubber boots and baseball cap, Poock shows how the procedure works in one of the dairy’s freestall barns. He sidles up to a big Holstein with an ordinary Greenlee PVC pipe cutter in his hand and picks up her 3.5-foot long tail.

“We’re going to take off her ponytail is what we’re doing,” he said. “And so to do that I have to find the end of her tail bone. Obviously we don’t want to cut that.”

Poock takes hold of the long curly hair at the end of her tail and cuts about 6 inches off of it with his pipe-cutter. The Holstein doesn’t seem to notice that she’s just gotten a haircut.

“That will keep that hair away from the milkers when they are milking her. And yet she’s got a long tail,” said Poock. “You can see there are no flies in here but if there were and she wanted to switch flies away that could be possible.”

Poock said that more and more dairy producers are trimming their cows’ tail switches like Foremost does. Since the pipe-cutter only costs $10, it’s cost-effective, and any producer can do the trimming once or twice a year.

In 2009, California banned cow tail docking and this past June, Rhode Island passed a similar law. Ohio is moving to phase out the practice by 2018, and others states are also considering legislation to prohibit routine cow tail docking. Both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners also oppose the practice.

What do you think about cutting -- or docking -- cows' tails? Let us know in the comments section below.