Here in Vermont, black and white Holsteins are still as emblematic as the maple leaf, and dairy is up there with tourism as a major industry. Along with the bucolic image that we cherish, there is invigorated interest in where food comes from, and caring consumers are now a more vocal part of the equation between animals, farmers, and manufacturers. One of many ways we can improve upon the welfare of our cows is to simply allow them to keep their tails.
The amputation of the animals' tails using whatever method farmers choose to use, typically without anesthesia, is widespread in the industry and here in Vermont. This, despite the fact that 15 years of accumulated scientific evidence concludes that docking — cutting off two-thirds of a cow's tail — does not enhance product quality. Evidence of distress, along with acute and chronic pain, is incontestable; the cow is deprived of her ability to swat flies.
Tail docking is a bad habit that persists for the sake of worker convenience. Even conservative veterinary and industry associations, including Hoard's Dairyman, admit that tail docking is "one practice whose only place should be in the annals of history."
Yet some farmers still defend their right to dock tails with vehement intransigence. Six years ago, then-senator Harold Giard, a former dairyman himself, first sponsored tail docking legislation; Senator Dick Sears has done the honors twice since. The bill (S.22) needs to make crossover to the House for a vote, and at the start of this session, there's something different on the table.
Ben & Jerry's, the iconic Vermont-based ice cream company, has always cultivated its image as quirky, fun-loving, and socially responsible. Two and a half years ago, tail docking was not even on their list of qualifying criteria for their "Caring Dairy" participants.
It was time to hear from the public, so I posted a petition on the change.org petition site exhorting the company to oppose tail docking. The number of signatures quickly bourgeoned to more than 133,000. Ben & Jerry's was certainly aware of the effort — a Board member told me that the Chairman of the Board had brought it to her attention.
Last month Ben & Jerry's publicly announced that it opposes the practice, and now requires participants in its (voluntary) Caring Dairy program to not dock tails.
The big news is that the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) has accelerated the timetable for their ban on tail docking from 2022 to 2017. The two co-ops that supply most of Ben & Jerry's milk and cream, St. Albans and Agrimark, are NMPF members. NMPF CEO Jim Mulhern took a lot of heat for this decision from producers, and he also made a very important statement: "When the marketplace and consumers tell our customers that they don't want to purchase milk and dairy products from farms using the practice, you have to respond."
Prodded by tens of thousands of people who signed this petition, tweeted and shared it, Ben & Jerry's announcement helped themselves to a scoop of good PR in advance of NMPF's more inclusive ban. Disappointingly, repeated requests for transparency in B&J's Caring Dairy program still remain unanswered, and the number of participants in the program is not public.
But let's hope the modest welfare improvement of ending tail docking is the beginning of a more robust Caring Dairy Program for Ben & Jerry's, now that they know that their "happy cow" claims will be held to account.
The dairy industry itself has long acknowledged that tail docking is unnecessary and unpopular with the public, and is finally prepared to act. Establishing an important precedent, The Humane Society of the US led a landmark ballot initiative in California, and comprehensive animal welfare legislation—including a tail docking ban — was enacted in 2009. More recently Mercy for Animals released a sickening undercover investigation showing cows' tails being cut off with shears. Now tens of thousands of people have told Vermont's vaunted ice cream company to knock it off.
Hopefully emboldened by Ben & Jerry's and NMPF's position statements, legislators should take a vote and pass S.22, so that Vermont can officially go on record as a rural state that no longer tolerates the cruel practice of cutting off cows' tails. Please let your legislators know that as a concerned citizen or caring consumer, you support a ban, and go to CowsNeedTheirTails.com for more information.
Laura Yanne is a resident of Dorset.
Thanks to Nancy Benoit for baking a vegan shoo-fly pie for my meeting with Ben & Jerry's CEO,
and for uploading info on the website www.cowsneedtheirtails.com. Thanks to Harold Giard,
whose knowledge about cows and the dairy industry has been—and continues to be—invaluable.
Thank you Sen. Dick Sears for sponsoring S.22.