Dairy Farmer: Here's Why Abuse of Cows Can Happen and What to Do About It

Last week, we shared a shocking video shared by Mercy for Animals showing workers at a Fort Morgan dairy farm beating, kicking and stabbing cows.

The video has already led to the firing of some employees, and an investigation by the local sheriff's department is underway.

Most of the comments generated by the post castigated those seen on screen for their behavior. But we also heard from a dairy farmer based in southwestern Wisconsin who offered an insider's perspective on the issue. While he, too, is appalled by the actions seen in the clip, he understands why such disturbing excesses can take place — and he argues against assuming that this kind of thing happens at all dairy farms.

Here's what he has to say.

Christopher Baird writes:

I just read your article on dairy cruelty and watched the attached video on Westword.com, and I would like to offer a few thoughts. Please bear with me, as these arguments are complicated and nuanced, but, I believe, no less valid for it.

I am a dairy farmer, although on a relatively small scale. Right now I milk 32 cows, and I hope over the next few years to grow that number to around 55. My parents bought the farm that I now own and operate in the late 1990s, so I and my family are relatively new to the dairy industry, but I have enough experience to make educated observations.

I do not condone the actions depicted in the video, but I can understand them. The economics of farming, particularly over the last 35 years, have mandated that the few farms that are left tend to be very large, and rely heavily on hired labor. Farming is a very low-margin business, and milking is almost of necessity a hard, dirty job. This means that the people who milk most of the cows are doing an unpleasant, dangerous, and difficult job for minimum wage. Many of the people who actually milk and handle cows, then, are South- and Central-American immigrants and American high school students. High-school students, almost by definition, are short-term, usually part-time employees, so the perception is that they are not worth training in proper animal handling. Furthermore, handling animals is a learned skill, not a taught one. No one ever learned how to herd a cow by reading a book or watching a video, but only by actually herding a cow, and it is a process that takes time. In an industry where change is measured in generations, you simply can't teach a summer employee everything he needs to know, especially when you learned it yourself by constant work over your entire life. In many cases, farmers might not even realize that those skills were not something they were born with.

Cows are large animals, and while they are not generally aggressive, their size can be intimidating to someone who is not used to working with them. Furthermore, while cows are very intelligent, they can be very stubborn sometimes. They also have a much higher pain tolerance than people do, meaning that using mild pain to get a cow to do something is usually not effective, and an inexperienced person will naturally attempt to escalate pain to get the desired response. This is not the right response, but a natural and understandable one.

The common characterization of the dairy industry as exploitative because of its treatment of calves, and "constant" pregnancy is misleading. Calves, like cows, are worth quite a bit of money if in good health, but worth virtually nothing if they are mistreated and sick. Therefore economics demands that calves, and cows, be treated well, although what that looks like is different than what treating people well would look like. The veal industry is moving toward implementing mandated group housing for calves, as are most dairy farms and heifer raisers. The movement toward group housing for dairy heifers is almost entirely being done in the interest of the calves, based on the realization that healthy, happy calves grow up to be healthy, happy, profitable cows. There is also more to using milk replacer than profit: milk replacer (powdered milk) is nearly the same price as milk, but has been pasteurized. There are very few diseases that can pass from cows to humans through milk, but quite a few more that can pass from cows to calves, so while I drink raw milk without any worries, it is worthwhile to pasteurize milk that is fed to calves (or, as I do, carefully only feed milk from healthy cows).

Finally, what to do about it: the common assertion that people should stop eating dairy products in protest against the dairy industry is mistaken in that it sees the dairy industry as a unified whole. In fact, there is a wide variety of farms throughout the country, and abstaining from dairy products will not hurt each farm equally. In fact, reducing demand, and therefore price, if it has any effect at all will be most detrimental not to the large farms, like those shown in the video attached to your article, but to small farms like mine, where I know each cow by name, and treat each cow as if she were a member of my family. You may eventually force a few larger farms out of business, but their place will be taken by similar farms. What we need is to make dairy farming, and farming in general, on a small scale attractive to a younger generation, so that new farms are small enough that the owners can actually care for the farms themselves, rather than hiring anybody they can because there is too much work for one or two people. If you don't like what you see from dairy farming, then find what is good in it, and support that, rather than assuming that the bad that you see is the norm.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.For more memorable takes, visit our Comment of the Day archive.

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