A Cow’s Life: Happy, Happy, Happy, Dead

Lee Gross, FYP Consulting

Lee Gross FYP Consulting

Animal welfare.  Animal rights.  The ethics of producing milk.  What do these terms mean?  Have definitions changed over the decades?  What do consumers know?  What should they know?   What’s “happy, happy, happy, dead”?  Dr. Jim Reynolds ( [email protected] ) is an animal welfare coach at FYP Consulting.  He helps dairy producers create environments where calves and cows can thrive.  I discussed animal welfare, rights, and ethics with Dr. Reynolds recently.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.  This is Part 1 of a two-part article.

Lee Gross

Let’s start with some definitions.  What is animal welfare and how is it different from animal rights?

Dr. Jim Reynolds
Animal welfare and animal rights are different topics.  They are separate and should not be confused.

Animal welfare refers to the mental and physical conditions of animals.  Technically, that is how an animal is coping with its environment.  In practice, animal welfare is the emotional, or affective, state of an animal.  Is the animal happy (emotionally positive) or is the animal anxious, fearful or in pain?  The science of animal welfare has progressed from focusing on reducing bad things that happen to animals to including what is necessary for an animal to have a good life.

For example, research from UC Davis has shown that dairy cows and calves want clean, dry, and comfortable places to lie down. This is different from keeping them clean and dry to reduce disease.  Providing for the welfare of cows and calves, therefore, means they are provided what they want all seasons of the year. Of course, when we provide what the animals want (the good things), such as clean, dry, and comfortable housing, we also reduce the bad things, such as disease and decreased production.  Well-designed animal welfare audits and programs consider the affective (emotional) states of animals in the standards.

The animal rights discussion has two distinct areas: legal animal rights and ethical animal rights.

Animal rights technically refer to the legal rights of animals.  Animals are considered property and have no legal standing in the US, unless given specific protection under specific laws.  In the US, there are only two Federal laws affecting livestock:  the 28-hour rule (livestock must be off-loaded and rested at 28 hours of transit) and the humane slaughter act.  There are some State laws regulating tail docking of cattle and housing requirements for swine, poultry and veal calves.  Otherwise, protection of animals, legally, falls to the common practice concept.  Husbandry of animals is considered acceptable if actions or management is typical of husbandry in that region or State.  Thus, for example, it is acceptable to house sows in gestation crates in most states, even though restricting the ability of an animal to even turn around would be considered cruel and not allowed for other species.  And it is common practice to disbud or dehorn cattle without pain relief.  In short, there are very few legal rights for livestock in the US and no real political desire to change the legal status of livestock animals.



The other discussion of animal rights concerns the ethical rights animals have.  Most people consider that there are some basic things animals should be provided when in our care.  For example, most people agree that animals have the right to not be starved, die from thirst, heat, or freezing or be abused or suffer when in our care.  That is to say that animals have the right to feed, water, shelter, and minimizing pain and distress when in our care as an ethical requirement rather than a legal requirement.  The legal standards we adopt as a society reflect our ethical standards.


How do you think the typical consumer views these two things?


I think consumers of livestock products generally do not spend much time considering the welfare of animals, or their legal rights.  I think consumers expect animals to be cared for according to our societal ethics.  That is, it is expected that cattle, pigs, and chickens have generally good lives and people managing the animals do things that make animals comfortable and happy.  People expect food to be healthy and safe and they expect animals to be cared for the way the animals have evolved.

It is when consumers are made aware of practices that differ significantly from their own ethics that issues arise.  When people are challenged or shown images of sows in gestation stalls, chickens in battery cages, or cows with docked tails, they know those things are not right for the animals and we see responses from disapproval to supporting laws to prohibit those husbandry actions.  Consumers of our products do what we are all supposed to do, we apply our ethics to a situation to decide if it is acceptable to us or not.  The livestock industries understand this when marketing products.  Milk has never been sold with pictures of tail-docked cows, egg cartons do not have pictures of chickens in battery cages, pork does not show pictures of sows in gestation stalls. I think consumers expect husbandry practices to at least match marketing practices.



Most people expect animals to be treated correctly without needing laws to require ethical treatment of animals.


Ethics is defined by Merriam Webster as “a set of moral issues or aspects (such as rightness)”.  How do ethics fit into animal welfare?


The science of animal welfare tells us what each species and each animal wants and needs to have a good life.  The actual provision of that, at the animal and farm level, is an ethical construct.  As stated before, there are very few laws regulating animal welfare on farms in the US.  That means, what we do to animals that affects their welfare is bounded by ethics.  We each have our own individual ethics, we have community ethics, and when an issue rises to a sufficient level of concern, we develop societal or legal ethics.  For animals on farms, that means welfare depends on the ethics of the farm they live on.  For example, we know that disbudding and dehorning causes pain and distress and, because we can alleviate that pain with local anesthetics and analgesia, we have an ethical responsibility to disbud and dehorn calves with pain management.  The practice of that depends on the ethics of individual farm owners and managers.  The welfare science of that issue is clear – the welfare for the animal depends on individual ethics.


As an economist, I’m usually interested in dollars and cents, not a cow’s feelings.  How do we incorporate ethics into a dairy business plan?  Do we budget for it, add it as an appendix, or?


For starters, every business plan should be ethical.  Regarding animal welfare on dairies, I’m not aware of an improvement to animal welfare that does not improve value for the producer or the industry.  Value can be improved work conditions for workers. Value can be increased calf growth, realization of genetic potential, or improved milk production.  Value can be retaining or expanding markets for dairy products to consumers by providing confidence the animals have good lives.

Employees working with calves and cows want to perform their tasks without causing pain or distress to the animals in their care.  Dairies realize better employee satisfaction and retention when animal handling, disbudding, treatments and calving care have been improved regarding welfare principles. Providing pain management to disbud calves makes the process go faster, with better results and less effort by the technician and improves growth of the calf.  Employees do not want to cause pain to calves.

Providing clean, dry, comfortable areas to lie down on improves dry matter intake in cows; real heat abatement strategies improve calf comfort, decrease milk production losses, and cow and calf deaths during hot months.  Improving the housing conditions always results in better animal health and production.  No one ever makes money on lame cows, or heat stress, or mastitis in wet weather.

Ethical care of animals should definitely be the business plan for all farms.  This is the heart of the “social contract” farmers have with consumers and animals.  We will provide animals with good lives in return for products to sell and economic success.


The phrase “happy, happy, happy, dead” sounds odd.  Please explain!

To be continued….

You can contact Lee Gross  directly at [email protected]or www.fypconsulting.com

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