One of the most egregious welfare issues in dairy production is the practice of tail docking. The practice of tail docking started in New Zealand in the 1980’s and soon spread to North America. The reason it gained in popularity was farmers claimed it improved their ease of milking the cows, their ability to keep cows clean and their ability to keep the cow’s udder’s healthy. This made managing dairy cows easier for the farmers.
Unfortunately, no one thought of the impact on the cows. Cows use their tails for many purposes, including swatting flies, and to communicate with other cows. When a cow’s tail is docked, it is painful. There is no welfare benefit to the cow for undergoing this painful procedure, and when her tail is docked she can’t swat flies and she can’t use it to communicate with her herd mates.
Tail docking has never been allowed for dairy cattle in the Certified Humane® program. The decision to prohibit tail docking was made by our scientific committee, led by Dr. Carolyn Stull. Dr. Stull was one of four animal scientists that helped write the original HFAC Animal Care Standards, and is the Chair of our Scientific Committee. Dr. Stull has conducted numerous research projects assessing the issues around tail docking, and her results have shown that tail docking is a painful procedure, and that the theoretical benefits of tail docking do not actually exist. Thanks to Dr. Stull’s work, it is now known that there is no benefit to the farmer to dock their cows’ tails, and it is an unnecessary and painful procedure.
Unfortunately, tail docking has been a widespread practice in the US commercial dairy industry. The dairy industry trade association, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), has never prohibited tail docking. However, on July 23, 2012 the NMPF Board of Directors approved a resolution to oppose tail docking of dairy cows in their industry guidelines, the Dairy FARM program. Their decision also aligns their FARM program with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP). The Board voted to approve the following language:
“NMPF’s National Dairy FARM Animal Care Program opposes the routine tail docking of dairy animals, except in the case of traumatic injury to an animal. This practice is recommended to be phased out by 2022. Switch trimming is recommended as a preferred alternative. Acknowledging existing animal cruelty laws, NMPF opposes efforts to prescribe specific on-farm animal care practices through federal, state, or local legislative or regulatory action.”
Dr. Stull has been instrumental in getting the industry group to change their position. We congratulate Dr. Stull on this achievement.
While we commend the NMPF on opposing tail docking in dairy cows, we feel that ten years is far too long to wait for implementing this policy. When a farmer wants to become Certified Humane® and has practiced tail docking in the past, they must immediately cease all tail docking on their cows, or we will not certify them. We have not found that any dairy farm which immediately ceased tail docking has had problems. We would urge the NMPF to change the phase out period to two years instead of ten years.