Tail docking sparks heated debate

A group of animal advocates is fighting to urge Vermont lawmakers to pass bill S.22 that would prohibit the docking of cow tails. Tail docking removes a cow’s tail and is often practiced by conventional dairy farmers.

Jenny Joczik, a member of the board of directors for the Green Mountain Animal Defenders, describes docking as “a useless and cruel amputation of a cow’s tail.” She said that the supposed benefits of tail docking have been debunked and that the practice should be prohibited. At the Humane Society’s Humane Lobby Day at the statehouse in early February, Joczik was there trying to gather support for Bill S.22, which is sponsored by Senator Dick Sears of Bennington.

Tail docking is forbidden on organic farms and banned in many parts of Europe, as well as several American states, but still widespread on conventional operations in other states and nationwide. Joczik said that since organic farms can’t use pesticides to keep flies away, a cow has no defense but its tail against these bugs and the maggot infestations they could potentially produce.

According to Joczik, 83 percent of conventional dairy farms nationwide dock tails. Some say the practice improves the quality and cleanliness of milk and keeps the milking staff from being exposed to feces or other contaminants on a cow’s tail.

Bernie Guillemette of Guillemette Farm in Shelburne has docked cow tails for 25 years. “It’s the best thing ever,” he said.

Guillemette milks his cows in a parlor called a parallel parlor where cows enter and turn a quarter turn to the left or right. The milking machine is attached between their back legs from behind.

“There’s a splash tray where they urinate and [defecate],” he said. “If they have a tail, the tail is in there as well. So we dock tails to cut back on our somatic cell count, which is the bacteria measured in milk.”

Joczik said there are other, more humane ways of solving the problem of a dirty cow tail getting into the milk bucket—most involve a trim of the hair at the bottom of the tail or the use of ponytail holders.

Guillemette, on the other hand, recalls a farmer friend who lost his sight from an injury from a cow tail.

Tail docking began in New Zealand in the early 1900s and is usually carried out by the application of a tight band around the top of the tail. Eventually, the tail becomes necrotic and falls off or is cut off. Joczik said this is typically done without anesthesia. “Farmers claim it improves quality of milk,” she said. “There’s no scientific evidence to support this. In fact, the past 15 years of accumulated evidence proves it does not. Instead, it causes stress and both acute and chronic pain comparable to phantom limb pains experienced by human amputees. Additionally, the cow is deprived of its ability to swat flies and to signal to others in her herd.”

Guillemette said the fly swatting is unrealistic. “Today, a cow doesn’t need horns because they don’t have to defend themselves,” he said. “We do a good job of protecting them. A cow doesn’t need a tail for a fly swatter because flies go where a tail can’t reach anyway.”

Joczik said it will be an uphill battle. S.22 will have to pass in senate and the house before being approved by the governor. “Since the early 1900s, tail docking was considered necessary for cleanliness and quality,” she said. “Every single scientific study I’ve seen—more than a dozen—has debunked this. There are other options. Inflicting pain on our state icon is not humane.”

Follow the progress of Bill S.22 by visiting legislature.vermont.gov/bill/status/2016/S.22.