Dairy industry’s dirty secret

By David Byer

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

Some readers may be surprised to learn that although PETA is best known for its stunts, provocative ads and “rather go naked than wear fur” demonstrations, we have bought stock in dozens of companies as part of our effort to eliminate practices that cause animals to suffer. PETA purchases or accepts donations of small amounts of stock in companies to gain access to annual meetings and similar events, which allows us to appeal to the corporate leadership, board members and other stockholders and submit shareholder resolutions.

Recently, PETA has been using the leverage of our stock ownership to try to eradicate one of the dairy industry’s dark secrets: a painful procedure known as “dehorning,” in which cows’ sensitive horn tissue — or the developing horns themselves — are burned or cut out of their heads. We have presented resolutions at the annual meetings of Dean Foods, Papa John’s and Domino’s urging them to require suppliers to phase out dehorning in favor of selecting naturally hornless (or “polled”) cattle.

Traumatic procedure

Of course, you’d never know that nearly all cows born on dairy farms have tissue that will develop into horns because most farmers destroy that tissue or excise developing horns from the cows’ skulls. This procedure is extremely traumatic to calves, who are as young as a few days old when their horn buds are painfully removed. During disbudding, workers commonly burn searing-hot irons into calves’ heads, sometimes damaging the underlying bone of their skulls. Other methods involve using a caustic chemical paste to dissolve the tissue or simply cutting it out with knives or other tools.

Older cows have it even worse since dehorning in mature cattle typically involves cutting off the horn, which has already taken root in the skull. Tools used for this procedure include saws, gougers, sharp wires or gruesome guillotine dehorners, which may also cut off the surrounding skin. Horn removal can lead to postoperative problems, including hemorrhaging, tissue necrosis, bone fracture, sinusitis and even death. The wound caused by this amputation can take months to heal.

The animals subjected to dehorning often struggle desperately, thrashing, tossing their heads, rearing up, bellowing and collapsing to the ground — all signs of severe pain and distress that also increase the risk of additional trauma and blood loss. The excruciating process is routinely performed without anesthetics or painkillers.

One recent study from Texas Tech University found that calves who had been dehorned were observed to engage in abnormal behaviors indicative of stress, such as head-shaking and reduced grooming and eating time following the procedure. The study also noted that calves who had been painfully dehorned lost approximately 1 percent of their bodyweight by the next day.

Breeding for polled cattle is better for cows’ well-being. It’s also more efficient for producers since they will no longer need to spend time dehorning or risk setbacks caused by damage to the animals’ physical and emotional health.

Artificial insemination

Dairy farmers breed their cows regularly to keep them lactating, typically using artificial insemination. Just as farmers select for traits such as coat color, they can select for the hornless gene, and since the gene is dominant, at least half of a polled bull’s offspring will be hornless. Over time, the entire herd can become polled as a result of a regular breeding program, without the need for structural or operational changes — except, of course, for eliminating dehorning, which many workers admit is the worst job on the farm.

PETA will continue to urge the dairy industry and its largest corporate clients to do the responsible and sensible thing by replacing cruel dehorning with breeding for polled cattle, as is already widely practiced in the beef industry. Concerned consumers can help calves on dairy farms by choosing nondairy beverages and foods, such as milks, cheeses, yogurts and ice creams made from soy, coconut, rice, almonds, oats and other natural plant sources.

David Byer is the senior corporate liaison for PETA’s Corporate Affairs Department. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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