One of the most egregious welfare issues in dairy production
is the practice of tail docking dairy cows. This practice started in New Zealand
in the 1980s and soon spread to North America. The purported reasons were that it kept cows
cleaner, and helped reduce the risk of dairy farm workers contracting leptospirosis
from the dairy cows.
As far as leptospirosis, studies have shown that this disease is not connected to tail docking and the most effective method of prevention is vaccination of the dairy cows. Studies also have shown that there were no differences found in udder cleanliness, cow cleanliness or somatic cell count (an indicator of udder disease) in cows with non-docked tails versus docked tails.
Even though there was scientific data disproving all of the reasons this procedure was started, the practice of tail docking kept gaining popularity here in the United States. One of the main reasons it gained popularity in the U.S. was that it made milking more comfortable for workers because the shortened tail was less likely to hit people. A solution for worker comfort is “switch trimming.” Switch Trimming is where the hair on the cow's tail is trimmed but she still can perform a full range of natural behaviors and this is not a welfare issue.
Cows use their tails to swat flies and tail docking interferes with the normal fly avoidance behavior for those cows. It also prevents cows from using their tails to communicate with each other. This is detrimental to the cow’s welfare.
This procedure is also very painful to the cow. It is a partial amputation of up to two-thirds of the tail, typically performed without anesthetic and is accomplished by the application of a tight rubber ring that restricts blood flow to the tail which then atrophies and falls off.
There is pain, discomfort and long-term problems for the dairy cow if her tail is docked (amputated). There is no welfare benefit, therefore, tail docking in dairy cows should be banned.The Certified Humane® program has prohibited tail docking in cows since we were founded in 2003 for all of the reasons stated. Finally, this past year, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) Board of Directors approved a resolution to oppose tail docking of dairy cows in their industry guidelines. Unfortunately, they recommend the practice be phased out by 2022. Since there is no benefit and it is a painful, unnecessary procedure, why wait?
Photo by Adele Douglass: The cow in the photograph, a calf from Ayrshire Farm, has a tail which has been "switch trimmed," so some of the hair is cut off.