March 2, 2008 in Nation/World

Video puts focus on dairy cows

Stephen J. Hedges Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON – A videotape of crippled “downer” cows being mistreated at a California plant prompted outrage from animal welfare groups, a rebuke from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the plant’s closure, criminal charges, a lawsuit, congressional hearings and the largest meat recall in U.S. history.

But the video also has focused new light on a practice that some animal welfare and food safety experts contend is an old problem: the use in beef production of dairy cows that are spent and barely able to stand because of calcium depletion from being milked intensively for years.

“Now that the public has seen this Humane Society footage, it’s horrific but it’s not exceptional,” said Keith Mohler, a Humane Society officer in Pennsylvania who has led prosecutions in farm animal mistreatment cases. “It’s great that it was brought out, but it’s not uncommon.”

Dairy cows that are done giving milk have been a consistent supply source in American ground beef production. They make up about 17 percent of the annual beef slaughter, according to the Humane Society of the United States, which videotaped the cow abuses at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, Calif.

Prices for “culled” dairy cows can be half to about a tenth of the price of a fully fed steer in the beef market. The reason for the discount is that some dairy cows go to slaughter plants in rough shape. Typically, they have often been milked for several years, leaving their bodies without the muscle, fat and calcium of grazing, well-fed beef cattle. Some dairy cows appear emaciated when they are sold to slaughter plants, their hides stretched tight over their hindquarters and ribs.

Dairy cows can also carry some common maladies, including mastitis, a bacterial infection of the udder; foot rot, which they can develop standing for long periods in manure, mud and damp straw; and Johne’s disease.

Scientists believe these diseases are not carried into the human food chain, with one exception: Health and animal scientists are debating whether the traits of Johne’s are responsible for Chron’s disease in humans, an intestinal disorder that can cause inflammation of the colon, severe abdominal pain, diarrhea and weight loss.

But some dairy farmers say having lean and skinny dairy cows isn’t unusual, since the cows are bred to use their energy producing milk, not storing fat and building muscle like beef cattle. And they dispute the notion that unhealthy cows are being sold for meat.

Linnea Kooistra, who with her husband, Joel, runs a Woodstock, Ill., dairy farm of 250 cows, said animal care is a constant concern. A veterinarian visits once a week to check on the cows, she said, and a nutritionist visits once a month to monitor the herd’s diet. A cow hoof trimmer even comes regularly to give bovine pedicures. Kooistra said she finds it hard to believe that dairy farmers would neglect cows headed for market.

“You don’t get into a business like this unless you care about animals,” said Kooistra, a third-generation dairy farmer. “If it’s the middle of the night and a cow is having a calf, you’re out there. We care about animals. It’s what we do.”

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